AUA Conference: it was 20 years ago today

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.

Souvenir, but also useful to make coffee in halls of residence

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.

The Snowflake Monster

The University is threatened by a monster, the snowflake monster. This is not a monster made of snowflakes – that derogatory term that is used for sensitive students who won’t tolerate debate and who need trigger warnings. It is the monster that uses the term ‘snowflake’ and it lurks in our media, all over the world.

There is a spectacular example of its work in a ludicrous story published by The Sun (I’d not normally refer to this media source, but it’s necessary to confront it). The Sun has discovered there is a ‘snowflake’ reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Except, as attested by the professors cited in the article, this isn’t news, this is what the novel is about. Surely the journalists must know this, have they read the introduction to the novel? The story seems to originate from this new introduction but anyone who has read the book would know where the terror lies.  So assuming that the journalists are not stupid, the first concern is that they think their readers are stupid.

This story presents universities as places where strange theories are hatched, where monsters are empathised with and accorded human rights. This is anathema to a part of the media whose stock trade is monsters. How dare universities teach such stuff.

This is the backlash that paints liberal arts courses as useless, that sees legislators try to de-fund humanities research and attempts to de-legitimise the university itself. The very business of contesting truth, the heart of the university’s business, is ridiculed. Common sense tells you that Frankenstein is about a monster killing people, not about what it means to be human. Universities must be ridiculous places if they hold such notions.

Each stupid piece, even if on the most stupid premise, chips away at universities. This nonsense in the Sun isn’t itself a big deal, it’s so obviously stupid. But it’s only one of today’s stories. That’s the bigger problem.

An Academic Registrar’s Challenges (Twenty Years ago)

1998 has many parallels with 2018, at least as far as higher education policy and practice goes.  I’ve had a look through my notebooks for the first term of the new year and we face some of the same issues, but there are some contrasts as well.  As a young academic registrar, there was a sense of precariousness, some of that connected with the issues facing the college but also the  sector acting on the Dearing Report, and a government starting to hit its stride.  There was tension about HEFCE’s new funding methodology, which would see institutions migrate to within 5% of a standard unit of resource measured by FTEs, which were controlled by the MASN.

Strategic Challenges

There were two specific challenges facing King Alfred’s College: the termination of its nursing contract and the conversion of the neighbouring La Sainte Union College into the New College of the University of Southampton.

The move of nursing education into universities is a fascinating story, and it should be told properly.  King Alfred’s had merged with its local nurse training providers and had a substantial number of students on nursing and midwifery programmes (I remember vividly my first midwifery validation event – which prepared me well for later encounters).  A bidding exercise had been run and many smaller providers had lost their contracts to offer nursing and midwifery courses, including King Alfred’s.  In early 1998 the college started to plan to phase out a third of its income.  The contract was taught out and a lasting memory is how the staff involved in the provision handled this situation with the utmost professionalism.

Another challenge came from the college’s validating partner: the University of Southampton had ‘merged’ with La Sainte Union College (LSU). LSU had succumbed to a second poor Ofsted inspection, it had not diversified sufficiently to survive without its teacher training contact and it was merging with its validating university: Southampton.  This was fine, but Southampton had come up with a new vision for LSU as ‘New College’, to act as a new access part of the university, combining with its adult education department.  For King Alfred’s, the potential revitalisation of LSU as a part of its validating university was a major concern.  It also forced a volte face on the part of Southampton who’d been looking to avoid ‘unhelpful competition’ between members of its validating ‘family’ but now found itself trying to compete.

Lifelong Learning

The Dearing report had positioned higher education firmly in a lifelong learning context – meeting the needs of the learning society.  The college had extensive CPD offering for teachers and a long established part-time evening degree, but was responding to HEFCE funding streams to engage adult learners.

Notes from a conference in March 1998 show that developing a culture of lifelong learning in the university was seen as the key challenge.  The Government were very enthusiastic but the sector would need to find ways of engaging as it developed its green paper into a framework for action.  Tessa Blackstone told the conference that universities should develop partnerships, have coherent strategies for access and develop plans for more adult lifelong learning.  Credit accumulation should be used to help students move between institutions.

At this stage the University for Industry was a key part of the government’s plans, with learning accounts enabling students to access short courses.  There was even mention of graduate apprenticeships.   Corporate learning would be important, and Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, the ‘vice-chancellor’ of the ‘BAE University’, provided information on their virtual university – part of their business strategy to enhance their international competitiveness, covering qualifications from HNDs to PhDs.

Working parties

If some have measured out their lives with coffee spoons, the life of an academic registrar is measured out by working parties.  In addition to the committees and standing groups, I appear to have attended specific groups on regulations, IT systems, graduation, continuing education, and tuition fees (we were still billing LEAs – but planning was underway for the new £1000 fees).

One set of working parties was concentrating on the future of the college, preparing a plan to deal with those strategic challenges, particularly focused on the prospect of applying for degree awarding powers.


Despite lots of efforts (including Bob Fryer who later headed it) Southampton’s New College never took off and the old LSU site was sold for housing.  BAE never developed their corporate university.  King Alfred’s got it’s degree awarding powers and is now the University of Winchester.