The 1998 Association of University Administrators (AUA) Conference was held at the University of Birmingham. It was a time of uncertainty; while the Dearing Committee had reported the year before, the new Labour Government’s Green Paper had raised a host of issues. Meanwhile HEFCE were maturing their systems, migrating institutions’ funding to a common level.
Bob Fryer was the main speaker, in his role of Chair of a lifelong learning advisory body but, in effect, David Blunkett’s plenipotentiary to the post-16 education sectors. Government had taken the learning society theme from Dearing, and were advancing a programme of lifelong learning for all – a point that he emphasised (no measly 50% target here). Fryer explained to a packed hall the challenges that the Government saw in three damaging educational ‘values’: failure, exclusion and hierarchy. This was to be an integrated policy, he was as concerned about the kids who’d disengaged at 12 as those choosing educational paths at 16 or 18. Fryer spoke often in this period, blending theoretical stances from Beck’s Risk Society with the ambition of his political masters.
Michael Clark (PVC at Birmingham) took a different angle to the same questions, looking at the New Labour approach to the management of public services, and then threading in how higher education would fit. The ‘Third Way’ would be important, and Clark warned that Blair would be more radical than people had given him credit for. He also said that political advisers would have an important role – my notes include ‘Most influential thinker on Ed is Ed Milliband!’
To emphasise the newness of the government, we heard from a new backbencher Stephen Twigg, seemingly still shocked to be MP for Enfield Southgate but known to the sector as a former NUS president. Noting the Government’s plans on £1000 fees, he sounded a caution about the removal of grants and the potential issues around mature students.
A more regular feature of AUA conferences is senior leaders providing their own takes while being open about the challenges facing their institutions. Sandra Burlesden explained how MMU had responding to the changes in policy by holding a major strategic review. Nick Andrew and Margaret Andrew (Registrars at Bradford and Huddersfield) focused on how a regional focus would help their universities and then addressed academic & administrative structures and how universities needed to do better to build career structures for their staff.
SUMS often offer a window into their recent practice at AUA, and I went to two sessions they supported. Bernarde Hyde looked at changing administrative support structures, with modularisation (often the 1990s’ bugbear) and research selectivity driving a ‘search for excellence’ in structures. John Haywood (with Fraser Woodburn) ran a session on ‘shaking up the administration’, with new mechanisms for support services’ accountability and value for money.
The best part of AUA conferences is colleagues sharing their practice – my last session was a comprehensive guide to creating an international recruitment strategy. Perhaps providers will be more reticent about sharing ideas that might be giving them a competitive edge, but the open sharing of ideas and processes is still at the heart of our professional body and its wonderful annual conference.