Last week we held the Outstanding Achiever Awards ceremony at the University of Bradford.
Normally a lavish event, this year doing its best in its virtual environment as part of the UNIfy Festival, a short list of awards celebrate outstanding contributions for teams, individuals and specific initiatives. Perhaps you already have a sense for where this is going: how do you single out outstanding achievers after the 12 months we’ve just had? Is there anyone who has not achieved something extraordinary? Did someone have a normal one?
When I sat down to write my nominations, it was an opportunity to reflect on our year as a service. I spent a long time thinking about my nominations (so long in fact I missed the deadline!) and when it came down to putting metaphorical pen to paper I was overcome by a sense of urgency to get across the importance of what the teams had achieved. I realised early on that I couldn’t think of a single individual nomination – all my submissions were team awards and they were being made specifically for teamwork. People had pulled together over online meetings in ways they never had when sitting in the same room.
What have university administrators ever done for us?
The term “university administrator” is often used derogatively in higher education, which is why I find the twitter profile of Nottingham Trent’s Academic Registrar rather charming. While I’ve always been an advocate for the rebranding of “support services” to “professional services”, there is no getting away from the fact that we are all “just admin”. Why this should be an insult, however, remains a bit of a mystery. Administrators get things done.
Some of the things administrators got done in my own service this year include, but are not limited to: move from classroom exams to online assessment, work with the NHS to facilitate student nurses into placements, implement new emergency assessment/award/progression regulations (including the system developments that went with them, exemption management, board reports, training and online servicing), move PGR administration online (thesis submissions and vivas), reconfigure the university estate for a socially distanced timetable, design that timetable in a third of the usual time (then adjust that timetable again for the second and third lockdowns), reinvent enrolment without any face-to-face contact (while remaining compliant), adjust from attendance to engagement monitoring (across systems & reporting), manage student finance queries when sector organisations went offline (because their own WFH move didn’t go so smoothly), design and implement a campus test & trace system (free of charge), a Covid-19 testing process and a student travel management system, continue to graduate students and produce their certificates, and, when needed, be on campus behind screens and visors to help those who still needed help.
The oldest and noblest of university administration professions continued submitting HESA returns unperturbed.
And then there was everything else
A week after I pressed send on my award submissions, it was time to open SROCfest21! My own reflections had gotten me a bit emotional and, let’s be honest, it’s not like the DfE or anyone else had been showering us with praise, so I was keen to tell our 1000 delegates what an incredible job they’d been doing. I was already proud of the sector – I did not expect to be blown away by every practitioner session I attended.
Every presenter was still living through a difficult year, but had taken the time to put together a session so they could share with the community the best practice of what they’d achieved. There is nothing quite like the professional pride of a university administrator.
Naturally, more than a few focused on their Covid-19 adjusted realities and not unexpectedly many things were familiar (we’ll be telling our grandkids about no-detriment policies one day), but the way every institution had dealt with their challenges did not cease to be inspiring. I never thought a session called “Apocalypse Now” would live up to the name, but Northumbria sure did not exaggerate. Nobody did a session on university accommodation. That one might still be a bit sore.
You’ve done it
In the end, what struck me the most was the business as usual, future-gazing, matter-of-factness of it all. Whole projects being delivered during the pandemic (from CRMs to Curriculum Management to Apprenticeships), Data Futures continuing into its 234th year, the upcoming Admissions reform, the ‘new normal’ blended offer, funding changes, TEF review, NSS’s untimely murder and heartening reprieve…
Before we get swept up in the next wave of urgency, let’s reflect on everything “mere” university administrators have accomplished. A year ago, we would have called it impossible. But here you are, having done it. And that includes you, yes, you, who thought you were not pulling your weight because your kids took up too much of your time or because you could not keep up your self-motivation 24/7.
No award in the world can tell you what you’ve achieved. Be proud. You did it.