An Academic Registrar looks forwards

Transparent arrangements for tuition fees, credit arrangements for student transfers, anxiety about arrangements for quality assessment; these are part of the concerns of an Academic Registrar.  I have them all neatly recorded in my notebooks from summer term 1998.

I’ve had several looks at 1997/98, which was my first full academic year as an academic registrar.  In the first term we were still digesting the Dearing report, the second term focused on strategic challenges and the opportunities for lifelong learning, and I even had a look at that year’s AUA Conference.  Inevitably the third term of any academic year is dominated by assessment and I have notes recording the challenges of two-tier examination boards, which appear to have gone off very efficiently (helped by the simple trick of being able to bring up student records on a big screen).   There’s also the end-of-year cycle of committees, where Parkinson’s law requires that policy development has to expand to fill the time available for its completion so the agendas are all full.

Tuition Fees

The Government had brought in a £1000 fee, but had managed to skip much of the wisdom that Dearing had imparted into his proposed scheme and we were preparing for the practicalities of an up-front fee payable by students or their families.   The fees working work has to grapple with payment terms: invoices and instalments; credit cards or post-dated cheques; fines or loss of privileges for missed deadlines.


Local Vice-Chancellors had agreed to set up a group to look at credit rating and transfer.  Six HEIs had gathered to compare structures with a view to better facilitating movement.  It emerged that we had an interesting range of module sizes; 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40.  Some HEIs had specific links with FECs, and it was reported that there would be strong support from FE for offering generic first year provision that could lead onto different HEIs.  However, the research intensive university in the group reported that while it did do transfers, these were limited to the Russell Group ‘because of academic reasons’ (says my notes).  The meeting ended with the prospect of some subject areas meeting to align curricula (naturally nothing came of that).


The Dearing report had tried to bring together the twin systems of quality assessment (run by the funding councils) and quality audit (run by HEQC).  There were a lot of meetings focused on what could be expected from the QAA.  Teaching quality assessment (TQA) was continuing, but complaints about the workload were growing stronger.  Hopes that an enhanced external examiner system could replace external assessment were fading as the notion of a register of examiners lost traction.  Attending a QAEN meeting in May, I noted the conflicts in the sector, including what should be done about ‘iffy’ standards – would QAA step in?  As with our current debate on subject TEF, there were issues about how we should define subjects, especially when these were constructs outside an HEI’s own structures.  Work would progress to build up the ‘academic infrastructure’ – which is all now coming down…

1998 vs 2018 

There doesn’t seem to be much difference twenty years apart.  The ebb and flow of the academic year is pretty similar; plagiarism hearings mingle with meetings about admissions targets.  There was an anxiety about the impact of changes to national systems, especially the unintended consequences for providers not in the golden triangle.  The thread through all of this is trying to find the best solution for the institution and its students in the face of shifting external pressures.

Meantime, I do wonder if I’m currently taking detailed enough notes to make sense of all of this in 2038 when, no doubt, some of the policy issues on fees, credit and quality will be settled.

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.

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.

Adventures of a young academic registrar 

Waiting for the ‘major review of university funding and student finances’ brings to mind the last proper review, the Dearing Review, 20 years ago. Having also spent time perusing HEFCE circulars from the 1990s looking for details of MASN, I’ve been quite nostalgic this term.  20 years ago I was in my first year as an Academic Registrar and these were exciting times.  So I’ve looked up my notebooks to try and capture what was going on in autumn term 1997.

My notebooks record a busy term. There was the normal business of King Alfred’s College (now the University of Winchester) – professorial appointments, student disciplinary hearings, committees etc.  Layered onto that was the prospect of change brought on by the Dearing Report and the impact on the college as it looked forward to gaining university status.


The scope of the Dearing review was huge.  In addition to the issue of fees, the report had implications for all parts of the sector.  In October Ron Dearing gave the Fawley Lecture at Southampton, framing the notion of the learning society and how higher education played a key role.  In all the talk of change, Dearing stressed the enduring purposes of higher education, closing his lecture with the same Masefield quote that had been in the introduction to the report.

‘It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things.’

By December details of the structure of the QAA were emerging, with the Gloucester location settled upon and a staffing structure agreed.  Dearing set a huge agenda for the new agency though and much was still under active discussion, including the plans to create a register of external examiners.

Quality Assessment

In addition to a re-accreditation exercise by the University of Southampton, the college was dominated by the then HEFCE teaching quality assessment process.  Using the graded profile method this precursor of TEF actually visited institutions; watching teaching and sampling work.  My notes record the arrangements for the visits.  One planning meeting genuinely started with a discussion of the state of the Gents toilet and that the whole building needed washing.

Then there was the grand theatre of the feedback meeting.  The ‘scores’ for the graded profile were announced, the goal (at that stage) to ensured the provision was approved (by gaining 3 in each section) and then to maximise the reputational gain by getting as many 4 grades as possible.    Much hung on those six scores.  Notes of one feedback meeting record the mixture of criticism – especially on the lack of self-criticism (the self-assessment was ‘clear but bland’) – with praise for high quality teaching.

Looking Forward

Ron Barnett’s inaugural lecture in November started with the cheerful claim that the western university was dead.  Helpfully, out of a ‘constellation of fragility’ it could be re-born.   If the university adopted an ethos of collective self-irony, it stood a chance.  He raised the issue of supercomplexity and how the university must create uncertainty, especially in its teaching.

Issues in 1997 are very similar: in the institution it was about matching curriculum to student demand, structuring the academic year, matching staff workloads to RAE requirements etc. Outside, the issues of funding, autonomy and relevance were being shaped.  However, Ron Dearing was right, higher education endures.