Looking back is always risky. There is often a danger in this kind of reflection of coming across as an ageing, tedious nostalgic bore.
Well, I am undoubtedly a lot older than I was, and there is a chance that this whole thing is immensely tedious for some but I hope it isn’t a curse and there is not too much evidence of nostalgia here.
I’ve been privileged to be Registrar at the University of Nottingham for just over ten years now. It seems like an extraordinary length of time (not only for me, I’m sure). In my prior working life I averaged a new job roughly every two years across three different institutions. Nevertheless, even though the job title has remained the same, there has been major change during this time. So a decade as Registrar prompted me to reflect on some of the big shifts in university work which have happened during this time.
As a reminder, back in January 2007 the innovation that is the iPhone was announced, the European Union was preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and the Nintendo Wii was really taking off.
So, a very partial view of what’s changed in the registrarial world in the past ten years:
Bureaucracy still rules
The bureaucracy is now primarily electronic rather than paper based. I can remember whenever I used to return to the office after a holiday there would be stacks of paper in the in-tray but now there is next to nothing in hard copy. It is just about all in electronic form now which also makes avoiding work while on vacation even harder. I would suggest though that it wasn’t paper itself slowing things down, it is bureaucracy which now simply comes in a different form and in much greater volume.
(As an aside I was recently reminded of the practice at the University of Warwick until the late 90s of providing copies on pink paper of all written material prepared by administrators to the Registrar who would review all documents at the end of each week. Woe betide any Assistant Registrar whose memos or minutes in the folder of ‘Pinks’ did not find favour. Just imagine insisting on being cc’d into every email sent).
Yet more regulation
It might be thought that as the size of the public contribution to higher education funding declined this would be reflected in a reduction in regulation. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric from successive ministers, it is the case that the weight of regulation tends to keep growing rather than reducing. Moreover, the costs of regulation of HE outweigh the extremely limited benefits. The National Audit Office still regards HE as a low-risk sector in terms of fraud and malpractice. However, there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent. The burden of excessive regulation remains a significant problem for universities and, although the form has changed, it has undoubtedly grown over the past 10 years. Happy days.
Public affairs and accountability
Both are much bigger issues as universities seek to engage more with their communities, locally, nationally and internationally but are also more strongly held to account. This includes Freedom of Information (see this on FOI for example), Bribery, Money-laundering and Prevent legislation just for starters. More accountability and yet more regulation too…
Governance has become much more of a critical issue – getting governance right remains a critical issue for universities and is particularly important in a period of significant challenge and regulatory turbulence. It can sometimes be all too easy for institutions and governors, individually and collectively, to neglect the need to attend to such matters where there appear to be more pressing concerns. Where governance goes wrong it can go really badly wrong as I’ve noted here before and the Registrar’s role in trying to support good governance and prevent such difficulties is now more important than ever.
It’s all about the email
No more memos, only email. Email is now ubiquitous and memos are rarely seen nowadays but perhaps surprisingly many do still seem to struggle with email etiquette. In addition, there are some who appear not to regard the contents of their inboxes as ‘work’ and feel free to address emails selectively. Avoiding being overwhelmed by it though does seem to be a constant challenge.
Social media & blogging
Social media barely existed a decade ago. Facebook had been around for a couple of years but was yet to take off and Twitter was only nine months old at the beginning of 2007. Social media as a term was barely in use. Although it is now ubiquitous there is still much debate about the relevance and applicability to different aspects of higher education. As Eric Stoller regularly reminds us we are still well behind the curve on this.
I started the Registrarism blog 10 years ago hoping it would help with communication inside the University of Nottingham. It didn’t, but I kept going with it anyway, eventually joining the Wonkhe stable back in 2014.
Here is my first Registrarism post:
Black tie ceremonies
There never used to be big black tie dinners and award ceremonies for higher education. Double-glazing, packaging sales and other sectors regularly enjoyed their time in the spotlight but not universities. Nowadays there are quite a few of one kind or another. They don’t come cheap, the providers do make a lot of money from them and the awards decision-making criteria often appear to be less than wholly objective but what the heck, everyone likes to dress up to celebrate how wonderful we all are.
Job security is not what it was. In common with many other jobs there is now seems to be a much higher turnover in Registrar roles than there used to be. The greater precariousness of the role is sometimes linked to Vice-Chancellor change and, as HEPI has recently demonstrated, the average current tenure of VCs is now about five years which means that change in the Registrar job may happen more frequently. It’s just a perception though without any firm data it is hard to be sure so we will just have to wait for HEPI to look at Registrar tenure too.
More and more rankings
There are more and more university rankings every year. It used to be you only had to worry about a couple of domestic ones and perhaps one international one. Now there is a ranking for everything, from web presence to duck density and from environmental performance to so-called free speech. Some are irritating, others are plain dumb, but all are an inescapable part of the higher education landscape. One way or another, registrars are often asked to come up with an explanation for their institution’s performance in these league tables so they do have to be watched.
- The student voice has become much more significant and there is now probably much more day to day engagement with student representatives – a really welcome development this.
- Risk assessment and the formal management of risk has become a much more significant and formalised part of strategic planning and everyday university operations.
- Project management has shifted from an activity undertaken by gifted (or not so gifted) amateur administrators, often in their spare time, to something requiring professional support and dedicated resource.
- The pre-eminence of IT – in administration, in the classroom and in online learning – means that technology has to be a core part of everyone’s job. The ‘luddite’ defence doesn’t work anymore.
- Administrative structures are arguably less important than ways of working – cross-functional teams are needed for more and more projects which means that traditional silos are harder to sustain or justify.
- International view – everyone has to have an international view. This is not just learning from other universities but genuine engagement with peers and networks around the world to support the university’s international mission.
So, these are just a few of the changes I would pick out. And, to continue the opening theme and to paraphrase what the late John Peel used to say about the mighty Fall (his and my favourite band) university life is always different and always the same.
It’s a curse
Balti and Vimto and Spangles were always crap
Regardless of the look back bores
From ‘It’s a Curse’ by The Fall