Conference Reflections:

The winds of change are blowing through the sector, but so are the winds of opportunity

Katherine Wass (she/her) – Governance and Projects Officer – University of Bradford

The inaugural AHEP conference was markedly different from previous AUA events, but also still had familiar elements – the conga happened even if the more recent tradition of the fire alarm mid-way through a meal was absent – maybe next year 😊 The best, and most familiar elements were of course the people. A line up of interesting, and useful workshops together with some key notes that provided context and challenge to those present. As was said at one of the workshops I attended ‘the winds of change are blowing through the sector whether we like it or not’. So, for me there were three main themes that came through both via the sessions and the informal conversations that were had.  


Higher education in the UK is facing a level of change not seen in decades and cannot afford to act like a damsel in distress waiting for, or expecting, the government to step up and help provide some stability.  We need to be innovative and creative and work together to create a new look for higher education that is rooted in our values but fit for the future.  A model that is based primarily on 18 year olds attending campuses is, as we already know, simply not sustainable. 

There was some discussion around tertiary education and whether this would be a useful direction for things to move in.  However perhaps regardless of this, we need to accept the need to operate in a more ‘business like’ fashion as our standard approach. I know some will be saying ‘but we already do this’ but for some in the sector this is counter to their view of what universities should be doing.  

Given students are now very much seen as fee paying consumers it’s a logical step to consider.  Taking an approach which moves towards a model that can support skills and knowledge development in line with LLE.  Also support employers needs and research all year round, could help reaffirm civic purpose as well as providing a more sustainable footing.  Partnerships between HEI’s, colleges, councils and employers could all form a part of this approach that could by its nature also have accessibility and equality of access at its heart.  

This ‘recent article‘ in University World News looks at different ways that universities can generate revenue. 

Regulatory environment

The joys of figuring out what the OfS want, how this fits within new legislation, and at times, apparently contradictory guidance, are all part of the governance and compliance professionals daily lives.  Should there be change of government following an general election this may slow down, but it seems more likely that a cost saving will see a change of regulatory approach, regulators merging could happen maybe, rather than anything more substantial.  From what was discussed I cannot see any change in funding coming when the NHS, social services and schools are also crying out for more money.  As my dad used to say, there is no such thing as a magic money tree (or twig).

The governance and compliance functions have often been seen as an inconvenience (something that is not exclusive to this sector) but are now being given renewed vigour and focus.  We need to respond with agility and frameworks that are fit for purpose rather than bogged down in committee land – let’s use governance to enable good decision making and ensure decisions are made in the right places.  Let’s use the talents and knowledge we have at our disposal to provide the very best frameworks for our institutions.  Clearly in such a diverse sector there is no such thing as a one size fits all approach, but we can definitely help our institutions be more agile while still providing appropriate levels of assurance to our Boards/Councils that we are doing what we should be and the difference its making.

This is an interesting podcast about the role of governance, featuring Alison Benson from the University of Leicester (Joint lead of the AHEP Governance SIG)

Artificial intelligence and digital skills

In many institutions anecdotal evidence suggests there has been an underinvestment in skills development for professional service staff, this is in contrast to the perceived focus on development and career progression for our academic colleagues. The theme that came up a few times in different contexts and is clearly something that has to change, especially when it comes to digital skills and the use of AI.  With so many restructures that are inevitably leading to fewer roles, there is a need to ensure that the people who stay are not simply landed with more work.  Workload in professional services is not something that gets discussed much but is a very real issue.   

So yes, we need all professional services colleagues to have a minimum level of digital literacy and competence, but we also have an opportunity to design better processes, possibly with an AI element built in, and through this design roles that are more varied and interesting and have manageable workloads attached.  AI is unlikely to take peoples jobs just yet but can be used to help with the repetitive elements and provide a useful tool – we just need to learn how to use it whilst considering the ethical implications (as well as the cyber security ones) of doing so.  

This blog has more thoughts on the use of AI and its implications for Higher Education.  

It is clear, the winds of change are blowing but so are the winds of opportunity – it’s not going to be easy, but it should be interesting.

The Governance SIG won the AHEP SIG of the year award much to mine and Alison’s surprise.  Here’s to supporting each other and working together for our sector in the year ahead and maybe, just maybe we will be winning again in 2025 (always good to have a goal). If you work in Governance and are not already a member of the SIG do come and join us. 

Find out more about the Governance SIG and join today!

Why you should join AHEP

Katherine Wass (she/her) – Governance and Projects Officer – University of Bradford

What’s in it for me?

Its all about the people, I have met and connected with so many interesting people, we share experiences.  Its massively improved my network and I have found a community that is supportive and reassuring – whatever you are dealing with you are unlikely to be alone. Truly a brilliant bunch of people!

What experiences have had an impact on your career?

The main thing for me has been the opportunity to develop through setting up the Governance SIG and working with the Joint Lead as well as the team at AHEP to keep things moving.  I am learning all the time and getting the opportunity to write articles like this one (its my first so be kind) are things I would probably not have done otherwise.

What benefits have you personally found of being an AHEP member? 

Having access to a great network of colleagues from across the sector and the opportunity to create meaning through shared experiences and professional development.  Also being able to access their mentoring programme has provided some truly unexpected insights and opportunities.

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