Reflections on the AUA Autumn conference, sharing ideas, and sustainability in Higher Education

Development Monthly | #16 February 2023 | Reflections on the AUA Autumn conference, sharing ideas, and sustainability in Higher Education

Rachel Hill-Kelly

Assistant Company Secretary
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

One of the more welcome changes for me in recent years in higher education has been the significant increase in online events and conferences. Conferences and events are a great way for a higher education professional to engage with the wider sector, and to have the opportunity to discuss issues and ideas with others. Although I have worked in the sector for most of the last 14 years, my desire to attend events in person and engage with my fellow professionals has often had to compete against the practicalities of time management and childcare to attend in person. Being able to attend because of the flexibility offered by events moving online has enabled me to engage with current issues and ideas within the sector, how they impact me, and in turn what impact I may be able to make.

The November AUA conference was a perfect opportunity to discuss and hear from peers on current issues that impact me, as well as run a session (my first ever!) on something I feel immensely passionate about, sustainability.

One of the areas I have a keen interest in is how to improve my organisation’s environmental impact and the sustainability agenda. Many of the traditional ways to make significant improvements to environmental impact are within the physical space, with limited scope for improvement in an organisation that works predominantly online. That turned my attention to the digital space, so when I saw the focus of the November AUA digital conference was ‘Professional staff at the heart of digital excellence’ I decided to take a chance and submitted a session proposal with my colleague, Kate Mori.

With the advent of ever more online working, how might this impact on the sector’s efforts towards a sustainable future? How can we best align our new ways of working with the sustainability agenda, and where can improvements be made? It occurred to me that others must be grappling with the same issues.

As well as my own there were other great sessions I attended on the day. The fantastic session on ‘Building Belonging in a Virtual and Hybrid World’ prompted a lot of reflection on my interactions at work. While many of my conversations are now direct and productive (great for getting things done!), not being in an office had reduced my indirectly productive interactions – those conversations where you can get to know a little about someone and build those relationships at work that are critical but harder to establish. In an online environment it is more difficult to create the time for casual engagement – there’s no water cooler or lunchtime walks – and I’ve often reflected on how important making space for those indirectly productive (or even unproductive!) conversations in the working day still is.  

Having the opportunity to network is also a big part of attending conferences so I was immensely impressed by the Wonder platform. It opens up for more natural social conversation online – in particular, being able to see who was chatting in what rooms made it a bit like in-person networking. Best of all, because of the way online networking on Wonder works, that slightly awkward initial moment when you try and join an already in progress group conversation felt less daunting!

Having the opportunity to create a session and work with Kate has been a pleasure. She is incredibly knowledgeable about sustainability and practical implementation and we had a lot of fun collaborating on the session. I loved sharing a subject we were both so enthused by but with a completely different focus and knowledge of. We both strongly feel that if we are going to achieve meaningful change quickly it will require all of us to embed sustainable practices into our ways of working.

The sector has made progress in tackling its use of physical resources, buildings, printing and travel. There is increasingly conversation around sustainability in higher education, and attempts to further improve the sector position such as the EUAC Standardised Carbon Emissions Framework (SCEF). The next challenge is going to be really thinking about the sustainable use of the digital space and the Jisc report on digital carbon footprints is worth a read.  

It’s a complex and multifaceted developing area. No one organisation is going to have the resource to lead on this, but there is potential for collaboration in the sector to address these challenges. In the drive to be more sustainable in what we do in higher education there are lots of changes that need to be made to our ways of working.

Ours is a sector where people are really willing to help and collaborate, and that spirit of collaboration is one that is going to be absolutely key. After our session it was great to hear that other colleagues were keen to embed sustainable thinking in their institutions. Higher education has the ability and expertise to lead the change by adopting and promoting these sustainable practices, and can serve as leaders in communities, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone.

One last thing, the support from the AUA team in running the session was fantastic, and made it feel easy for a novice presenter – all the practicalities and logistics of the session were covered by them, allowing us to focus on presenting. I can’t wait to do it again!

  • We are now inviting proposals for the AUA Annual Conference and Exhibition 2023, will take place in-person from the evening of Sunday 2nd July to Tuesday 4th July at the world-leading University of Warwick.

    Our theme centres on the career pathways of professional staff and explores a continual self-reinvention to navigate a changing and challenging sector. 

    Find out more and submit your proposal!

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