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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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/)
- 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...").
- 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.**
- 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.
- 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.