“My first AUA Conference” | From a novice and a veteran perspective | AUA Blog

Francoise McKay | Senior Administrator, Faculty of Arts | University of Nottingham

The AUA’s 2017 Conference held at the University of Manchester was my first HE Conference and I will always remember it fondly.

I’m Fran, I’m currently a senior administrator in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham and at the time of the AUA Conference was one of the University’s Ambitious Futures Graduate Trainees. Apart from being a career changing, or in my case, a ‘career starting’ scheme, many institutions that take part in Ambitious Futures give their trainees the opportunity to attend the conference as part of the programme.

The conference theme was ‘Transformation’, capturing ever increasing changes and regulations occurring both to and within the sector whilst aptly describing shifts in my own professional development.

My first impression of the event as we stood laden with welcome packs, lanyards and notebooks at the ready was how excited everyone seemed. The positive buzz made us feel welcome and a little relieved that perhaps we weren’t the only ones who would be somewhat over enthusiastic about the session on best practice in copywriting for policy documents (?!).

The excitement carried on into the welcome address and our working sessions. Whilst some sessions were more interactive than others, all presented us with the opportunity to chat to new people and find out about projects going on either in other faculties or other institutions altogether. Whilst I unfortunately couldn’t clone myself in time to attend all the workshops, Twitter was a great snapshot into who else was attending the conference and allowed you a window into talking points from other sessions during the day.

The Twitter feed was particularly active during the conference’s debate which last year was, “Is a University degree a sound financial investment?”. The panel was diverse and made for a relevant and an edge-of-your-seat discussion; one on a topic that, as a first-in-the-family University student, I had engaged in numerous times in my own life. The inclusion of a recent graduate and UCLan President Sana Iqbal was particularly inspiring. The addition of her voice to the conversation was fresh and thoroughly encouraging to young professionals within the higher education sector.

Before coming to a close the following afternoon, the conference’s Gala Dinner tested a wide range of graduate skills; from balancing plates whilst giving out a business card to trying to read someone’s name badge whilst giving your elevator pitch introduction. Despite the pressure, nerves were calmed by a delicious meal, great company and the beautiful surroundings of The Principal.

In all, experiences like the AUA Conference encouraged me to search for roles within the sector after completion of my graduate scheme. Whilst initially daunting, the event’s engagement with challenging and sometimes provocative topics alongside the chance to meet individuals at all stages of their careers was an enlightening and defining experience for myself as a budding professional, leader and contributor to the higher education sector.

Mike Ratcliffe | Interim Head of Student Administration | University of Oxford

My first AUA conference was in 1993. The AUA came into existence at that conference; a huge event with 1200 delegates. I found the whole thing to be marvellous; there were the big policy issues being generated by a new sector regulator (HEFCE) coming into being, and discussions about students as customers. There was a terrific dinner in a huge marquee capped off by a blistering and barnstorming speech by the Bishop of Durham attacking markets in higher education (you can read a discussion on this on my blog).

I loved the mix of familiar and unfamiliar; I went to sessions on my work area (quality assurance) but also to sessions that I wouldn’t have been able to justify going to otherwise. For me that was going to a lecturer from my former university who ran a session on the ‘moral dimension’ – looking at how ethics applied to university administration.  To cap the celebrations we had a plenary session from Graeme Davies, the first HEFCE CEO, in the cathedral (still the best venue we’ve ever had for a plenary, and still the worst in sound quality).  Then out onto the cathedral close for an aerial photo of us in the shape of the new logo.

I was hooked.  I got a new job that summer and set out getting an AUA branch going and convincing my new boss that sending me to the AUA conference was a good thing. In recent years I’ve enjoyed giving sessions; sometimes on the day job, but mostly on the history of higher education.

Taking a longitudinal look at conferences over 25 years confirms that wonderful mix of continuity and change that marks life in universities. We’ve been running sessions on the divide between administrators vs academics the whole time. For fans of management fads, there is clear evidence of how gripped we were by TQM in the 1990s. There’s always been a strong policy theme: digesting consultations, anticipating actions and unpicking outcomes. The 2018 Conference will take place in the last days of HEFCE’s stewardship of the sector. We’ve seen quality assurance regimes come and go, several RAE/REF exercises, and a whole host of initiatives and schemes.

Some aspects of the conference have changed. There were some challenges because of the scale of the undertaking; staying in far flung halls of residence could be interesting (we were never in these luxury blocks that students seem to demand today) and some venues didn’t really work (what might have been the glamour of the QE2 terminal in Southampton turned out to be the coldest dinner venue we’ve ever had). Although we don’t get conference trinkets anymore, the generosity of the suppliers has pacified the kids on return home.

The most consistent aspect of the conferences is the wonderful sharing of practice in a sector where collaboration comes more naturally than competition. 

The second AUA conference in Sheffield in 1994 had 351 workshop sessions, most of which comprised professionals sharing practice, innovations and ideas across all aspects of university administration.  It’s this affirmation of professionals working in universities that’s kept me going back and looking forward to my next Conference this Easter.