Autumn Conference 2020 | Trustee blogs and highlights

On Tuesday 24 November we had our AUA Autumn Conference, which was held online for the first time. The theme of this year’s Conference was Future HE Professionals, following on from the research project we carried out earlier in the year, and we were honoured to have a variety of professional and dedicated speakers to further our thinking and prompt discussions.

Here we talk about just a few aspects of the day. If you were one of our many attendees, we hope you thoroughly enjoyed the day .

Helena Torres
Centre Administration Manager,
Brussels, University of Kent

What do I need to be a successful Future HE Professional?

Flexibility, adaptability, and kindness were the key terms that I came away with after the AUA’s excellent Autumn Conference 2020. 

Rachel Sandby-Thomas, Registrar at the University of Warwick, started the conference with a keynote on how she and her institution have managed the first period of lockdown.  This tied in nicely with the theme of the day as she reflected on the future of professional services roles in HE, suggesting that they need to be more generic to enable in-built flexibility to adapt to rapid and unexpected changes in the workplace.  Clive Betts, Head of People Development, University of Exeter, took this concept further in the afternoon workshop I attended, looking at ways of developing staff skills, agility and wellbeing to equip them for these new types of roles.

The other session I attended, led by Kenton Lewis, Director and Principle Consultant, Kenton Lewis Consultants, considered the challenges of managing staff in the current climate of hybrid and remote working, passing on a lot of valuable, practical advice on how to address these challenges.  The day ended with a stimulating panel discussions which picked up on the various themes throughout the day.

So what did I learn that can help me to be a successful Future HE Professional?  As well as starting to think about what gaps I need to fill in my current skill-set, which could help me to become the ‘ultimate flexible and adaptable colleague and leader’, I also kept hearing the message from the speakers to be kind to ourselves and others.  This may sound a bit corny, but it made a lot of sense to me: we must not lose sight of the human element in planning our own careers as well as planning the jobs and career pathways of others.

The event also reminded me that even through challenging times, lessons can be learnt from listening to colleagues’ experiences across the sector, and support can also be received directly and indirectly by connecting with other AUA members. 

Top three take-aways

• Universities have, by necessity, become more agile and resilient during the pandemic and through working from home. These are characteristics that would be beneficial for us to maintain and extend and they are underpinned by having flexible resources and good, clear processes. This is something I will continue to ensure I build in to process reviews and to developing operating models and organisational structures.

• I was also reminded that our focus should be on leading and managing services in our organisations and not administrative functions.

• We’re all using video calls to communicate extensively these days as a replacement for physical meetings. Body language is more difficult to read on a video call but I was reminded that it can be done and that tone of voice is also very important. I’m going to try harder to read these signs.

Steve Smith
AUA Consultant

Vikki Goddard
Vikki Goddard
Director of Faculty Operations
University of Manchester

Reflection and relief

In the continuing bedlam of trying to deal with the pandemic alongside the day job, it’s not surprising that time for professional and personal development has taken a back seat for many of us, including me.  So it was great to take the time to attend the Autumn Conference, which had a great mix of plenary and breakout sessions, all of which worked really well on Zoom (a massive well done to the AUA team who showed just how adaptable and professional they are).

My over-riding feeling from the conference sessions was one of relief; that what I’m feeling and experiencing in my role is shared by others across the sector, none of us is alone in this.  Particular highlights for me included Rachel Sandby-Thomas emphasising the importance of flexibility, leadership and management skills to get us through, together with concerns about how the government appears to see Universities as ‘massive Schools’ with Research Institutes stuck on the side, rather than integrated Institutions of learning (a reflection, of course, of the split into OfS and UKRI).  Her honest and insightful reflections on her leadership experience, underlining how the pandemic has shown some of the cracks in the system, made us consider our reputational issues and really focus on resilience and wellbeing, resonated.

The working sessions and Panel session built on these themes, together with some very timely discussions about the changing nature of professional services in HE, how we navigate increasing use of AI, linking to talent management and to the long-standing debate about generalists and specialists within our professional services.  What we have learnt from the pandemic is particularly striking in our focus on wellbeing, using the necessity of working differently to work better, and a longer-term consideration about how we build on this to really invest in our talent.

Within this discussion, a particularly challenging area is around enhancing our diversity and inclusion.  This was a focus of the session on Leadership Capabilities in HE where, amongst other issues, Tessa Harrison reflected on her experience of enabling more diversity in senior appointments.  She noted that whilst at the early stage of a search Universities are very keen to look for diversity, once you identify that more diverse pool of candidates (if you can, as pipeline is a challenge), quite often a University will decide that these candidates do not have the right ‘cultural fit’.  In the same week as UUK published its hard-hitting report on tackling racial harassment in HE, this should give all of us pause for thought, given the lack of ethnic diversity in many of our Institutions.

Overall, the conference provided excellent insight, and good time for reflection on what we have learnt, what we have proved we can do differently, and what we need to keep reminding ourselves not to go back to.  Overall, it also reminded me just what an amazing, diverse and fascinating sector I have the privilege to work in.

Uplifting, intriguing and entertaining in equal measure!

The AUA Autumn conference 2020 was a day well-spent, and it’s not often that can be said about a whole day spent on Zoom! I so enjoyed being connected with the wider professional community again after months working alone, and found the conversations and presentations uplifting, intriguing and entertaining in equal measure, blending a valuable mix of conceptual conundrums and practical advice.

Over a number of sessions the themes of resilience and empowerment emerged as key requirements for PS staff, and led me to reflect on whether these concepts are compatible with the current trend of greater centralisation in HE which can have a disempowering and infantilising effect on staff if handled badly.  The phrase ‘the hokey cokey of university administration’ chimed very much with my experience over the last two decades in university administration, as the pendulum swings between polar extremes of centralisation and decentralisation, specialist and generalist roles.  There is definitely some comfort in knowing that these tensions are cyclical and encountered on every campus throughout the land and also down through the years, as well as much benefit in learning from the approaches others have taken in handling these challenges in their own institutions. 

I fully endorse Tessa Harrison’s call for new thinking about operating models and leadership which can rise above these traditional tensions and focus on what works to provide service accountability and performance wherever on campus activities take place.  I for one am very much looking forward to the next generation of leaders as described by Tessa: leaders who will have high levels of emotional intelligence, integrity and humility.  I also look forward to seeing these leaders making the real progress needed for diverse communities to thrive in HE, for all our sakes!

Thea Gibbs
Director of Operations
University of Coventry

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