Tuesday, March 22, 2016

AUA 2016

I have just returned from attending the AUA 2016 conference for professional services in Higher Education and I just want to reflect on some of the things I have learned (both serious and lighthearted). Sadly, I could not attend the conference in it's entirely so I can only reflect on the first two days.


  1. While I have many skills, booking dinner reservations on the correct day for those in my graduate scheme is not one of them!! Apologies to the pub for the guests who didn't show up on the Saturday and for the influx of trainees on the Sunday for which you were understandably unprepared for!
  2. One of the repeated phrases was that so many who work in Higher Education work in silos and communication between different areas can be poor. But more than that, I think that the sector as a whole can also work in its own silo. The energetic and engaging opening plenary by Ben Goldacre discussed the misuse of statistics and how the medical sector has used randomised controlled trials to great success. I for one am thoroughly intrigued by this idea and would love to be able to employ this method in the future. Too often sweeping decisions are made with thought or experimentation for their effectiveness.
  3. Leeds is awesome! Got a recommendation to have dinner at Buca di Pizza where you can have unlimited pizza and prosecco for £20 with the only rule being that you have 90mins! Two Irish girls should not be trusted in that environment. (But seriously, I highly recommend it: http://bucaleeds.com/)
  4. There is NO difference between professional conferences and their academic counterparts. If you disagree with something that has been said or you are muttering under breath that someone is misinformed - politely take the microphone and add your voice to the mix. Too often in conference people bristles with anger/frustration about something but never speak up. But the bravery lies in asking the question in the first place (so long as it doesn't start with: "this is more of a comment than a question...").
  5. The AUA may have discovered the secret to time-keeping. During a "hotspot" section, speakers were given 2 minutes to pitch to the crowd. Little did the speakers or audience realise that once the countdown clock reached zero the booming sound of a gong would rudely dispatch the speaker mid-sentence. I made light of the gong on Twitter and of course there is frequently the problem of speakers going over time and chairs not dealing with this. And while the initial audience reaction to this gong dispatch was laughter, I later thought about it and feared that the speaker may not have been aware it was going to happen. If that is the case, and speakers were not informed of this practice, than it was grossly misjudged and unfair.**
  6. Universities are like an iceberg. We always here about what Vice-Chancellors are doing (and earning!). We know about big research emanating from our universities. We read about student activism such as #RhodesMustFall. We read about the REF and upcoming TEF. We fear the next big policy to be decreed from Whitehall. But what the AUA celebrates are the people who make it all work. They are the cogs in this large and unwieldy machine but a machine that has massive benefits for both individuals and society (although the comment that universities were "civilising activities" did not go down well in my books). It is often said that if there was no government then things would tick over just fine because of the expertise and experience held by the civil service. The same applies to university administration. And more thanks and respect needs to go to those who hold the knowledge and to those who implement policies and procedures on the ground.
  7. And yet, all too often they are forgotten. When the Brexit was mentioned at the conference, the focus was on the number of EU academics who work in UK institutions and the number of EU nationals who study in the UK. Zero mention was made to those EU nationals who work in professional services. In a discussion on equality and diversity, people talked about how BME numbers in students and academic staff are increasing, but again zero mention of such equality and diversity goals in the pool of professional staff. 
**Update: Speakers did know that there would be a sound, but perhaps not how loud that gong was going to be!!

With that all said, I did enjoy my first AUA experience. Of course, research and teaching are the core of what universities do. The work of academics and the experiences of students should always be foremost, but that does not mean that professional staff should not be considered in issues such as the Brexit or the Prevent agenda.

What I can positively take from AUA is that I work in an incredibly vibrant, diverse, and exciting sector populated by people who are passionate about their work, their universities, and the greater goals of Higher Education in general. 

You can follow the conference at #AUA2016.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

International Womens Day

It is International Womens Day and Twitter has been all abuzz with discussions of famous and historical and inspirational women. From Heloise in the Middle Ages to JK Rowling in the present, today is a day for promoting the achieviements of women in a world which still sees us on unequal footing with men in too many respects.

So, I started thinking about women I can look up to and aspire to in my own work. I am specifically thinking about leadership roles in universities, and here is where is gets rather disappointing. 

University administration / professional services (whatever you want to call it) is awash with women. There is no doubt about that. Yet, many women get stuck in middle management and don't progress to the top roles in universties. 

Recently, the appointment of Oxford's first female Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson has made headlines for vaunting the progress of the institution in appointing a woman to the top-role. And this was followed swiftly by the news that St Andrews was appointing it's second female Vice-Chancellor in a row. 

Great! That's progress, yes!?

Undoubtedly, these are welcome appointments which will hopefully help to continually change the gendered landscape of university leadership. Yet, look at this list of Vice-Chancellors from Wikipedia. Of the 127 universities listed, there are 25 female Vice-Chancellors.* That is already pretty poor. Them, if you look at those 25 women, only 5 are leading Russell Group universities. So, while there are women to look up to and aspire to in university leadership, in reality they are thin on the ground. Much of the problem stems from the academic inequality, where the number of female professors is disproportionately lower than their male counterparts. Vice-Chancellors traditionally are senior academics, so if we consider that only 22% of professors are female in the UK, then the pool of choices for Vice-Chancellorships will obviously be reduced. So, the problem needs to be tackled at an earlier stage by promoting and striving for greater parity between male and female professors.

One final area is in the more professional role of Registrar (or Secretary) of universities, a role which is equivalent to the Chief Operating Officer where the Vice-Chancellor acts like a CEO. Now, I don't have time to go through all 127 universities on the Wikipedia list, so I looked at the Russell Group. Out of the 23 institutions, a quick look told me that 5 are female and 16 are male (there were 2 which I couldn't readily find the information).

On this International Womens Day it is important to celebrate those women leading the way for others (and in this example, leading universities), but there is so much more work to be done. I hope to have a long and fulfilling career in universities, and I hope that in the future there will be increased parity across the board. While I celebrate Oxford's first female VC, I hope for a day when the appointment of female Vice-Chancellors and Registrars doesn't make headlines. 

It will simply be the norm...

*I have updated and changed Louise Richardson for Andrew Hamilton, and included Sally Mapstone who will be the new VC of St Andrews.



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Institutional Responsibility

A recent post on the Guardians 'Academic Anonymous' blog has raised some discussion today. You can read the article here.

Ultimately, it argues that universities are not doing enough to support PhD students find academic employment. It says:

'Unis need to stop merely training academics and instead start providing some of the jobs they have trained them for'.

Now, no one would deny that they would love to see universities create more academic positions for early career researchers in order to make the academic job hunt less brutal (especially in arts and humanities). But there is also a reality to be faced that there will simply never be enough academic jobs to go around, even if the situation improves. The number of people gaining a PhD is increasing and increasing, but the demand isn't there. Take the situation of history PhD students for example. This important blogpost by @brodie_waddell explains exactly how dire the situation is:


So, yes, it would be wonderful if universities increased the number of academic positions, but it won't solve the problem. If universities really want to support their PhD students they need to start looking at them beyond the research lens. The skills that PhD students gain during their studies have real world applicability, but too few are informed of this. For example, my History department put on a number of employment workshops but every single one was geared towards postdocs and lectureships. Not a single one discussed alternative career paths. No wonder so many PhD feel lost and helpless once booted out from the ivory tower!

And non-academic job workshops I have come across, predominantly cater towards STEM subjects where leaving academic for industry is far more the norm.

Academic departments and career services ought to work together to put workshops on that explore alternative career paths, based on skills developed during research-intensive PhDs in arts and humanities. It is my experience that students are more likely to attend department based workshops on careers, rather than set up 1:1 appointments with careers services. Furthermore, universities should be promoting the value of working outside of academic help to reduce the stigma that non-academic jobs are the "last resort" when the academic job doesn't manifest.