At the end of August, SUMS Consulting hosted one of it's Academic Registrars’ Community of Practice Groups with the purpose of bringing sector leaders together to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing academic registry and student support within the sector.  Our own David Becker facilitated the day’s discussion, shared best practice emerging from recent assignments, and shares his key points from the day here.

SUMS Consulting was delighted to be hosted by one of our members, the University of Oxford, for the latest in our series of events for academic registrars and heads of student support. The event took place in St Luke’s Chapel, a building that dates back to 1865 and the surroundings were certainly different from the conference rooms that many of us find ourselves in all too frequently!  Over the course of the day we took a look at three particular areas:

  • Postgraduate widening participation
  • The shape, structure and differential models of student service provision
  • Student representation and student voice

Postgraduate Widening Participation
We heard a fascinating presentation from Nadia Pollini (Head of Graduate Admissions) who talked us through Oxford University’s UNIQ+ initiative, a six-week summer school that is designed to give students from all walks of life a chance to experience what postgraduate research study is like. Whilst UNIQ+ gives a particular taste of what study would be like at the University of Oxford, it is hoped that postgraduate study will be made more accessible to undergraduate students generally. UNIQ+ offers an attractive package including a £2,500 stipend, free college accommodation and travel expenses so it’s no surprise that application numbers are high. You can read more about UNIQ+ here.

Student Administration Review Project – examining the shape, structure and differential models of student service provision:
There isn’t a university in the UK that isn’t thinking about how it best responds to the fluctuating pressures that are emerging from the political, social and economic landscape at the moment – and the academic registry is the heartbeat of a university’s provision. Sharon Harrison-Barker, Academic Registrar at the University of Hertfordshire, talked the group through the university’s Student Administration Review (StAR) project which the university had taken forward using its unique engagement-led approach. The StAR review aims to deliver student administration that is fit for the future by delivering greater efficiency and effectiveness whilst meeting the needs of all key stakeholders. It wants to introduce staffing structures that have sufficient flexibility to respond more quickly to opportunities, demands and challenges, whilst reducing dependency on individuals, increasing sustainability and resilience of service and, crucially, protecting staff wellbeing.  SUMS’ support to the assignment was focused on a sector comparison strand, facilitating workshops with a variety of internal and external groups to make an assessment of the way student services are currently delivered across UK HE, whether they are centralised or devolved (and whether either is considered to be more effective).

If you’re interested to hear more about this when why not drop Claire Taylor a line at

Student Representation & Student Voice
Our final session of the day took a closer look at what constitutes ‘high maturity’ in student voice. SUMS has led a number of reviews in this area over the last eighteen months (for both universities and students’ unions) and also conducted a survey of its members to gain a sense of what good practice might look like and how close universities felt they were to delivering it. A selection of the key messages include:

  •  It doesn’t matter how many student representatives you have sat on your committees if the quality of their engagement is poor (note that the university has a role here to actually equip reps with the skills and information they need to contribute effectively)
  • Many institutions are still defaulting to hearing the ‘student voice’ only from those who are most vocal and willing to give it – therefore the formal mechanisms are at risk of giving neither a true nor comprehensive picture
  • The most valuable feedback can come through informal mechanisms (such as one-to-one conversations) or through clubs and societies, neither of which typically find their way into the governance mechanisms.

Our work in this area also revealed some slightly uncomfortable truths. Firstly, that despite the importance we place on it, there are a great many students who are wholly engaged in their university studies who have very little interest at all in the notion of student voice. Insofar as they expressed a view, it was that there were a) far too many surveys and b) involvement in student voice in a formal sense was excessively political and in no way a ‘fun’ activity in which to be involved.

SUMS is producing a comprehensive briefing paper on all these findings – including a set of high maturity operating principles that universities can measure their current performance against and use to develop an action plan for improvement – so if you have an interest in this area please contact me and I’d be delighted to discuss it with you.

I’d like to place on record my thanks again to Saira Shaikh, Jackie Hoyle and Nadia Pollini from the University of Oxford, as well as Sharon-Harrison Barker from the University of Hertfordshire and my colleague, Claire Taylor, for their excellent contributions to the day.

We will be arranging the next group in the coming weeks and I look forward to seeing you all again then.

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