An Outpost of Progress: Notes from AHUA’s First International Learning Set

Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, reports on a visit from AHUA colleagues.

“To grapple effectually with even purely material problems requires more serenity of mind and more lofty courage than people generally imagine.” Joseph Conrad, An Outpost of Progress

Call me old-fashioned but Joseph Conrad is my favourite writer.

His spare, modernist style and relentless focus on an inscrutable, impassive universe grabbed me as a teenager and never let go. An Outpost of Progress, not dissimilar to his better known Heart of Darkness (Conrad himself considered the former his best tale), is almost unfailingly bleak and depressing but knotty, difficult, and dark along the way.

A bit like being a Registrar.

Except being a Registrar (which we’ll take as shorthand for University Secretary, COO, or even CAO in my case) does have moments of clarity, purpose, sense, and – in the case of a decent Learning Set – collegiality which leads to genuine friendship.

My recent experience of that came at what I’m told is AHUA’s first Learning Set overseas last month.

Four intrepid colleagues (the fifth almost made it, but duty called back at the office…) from my Learning Set came out to the United Arab Emirates for four days. We held the normal full day of sharing and discussing ‘live’ issues we’re dealing with, as well as the traditional dinner as a group (minus the alcohol).

Given the distance everyone had travelled, we also included a presentation from my Vice Chancellor on the context of HE in the UAE as well as sessions from our Deans about The British University in Dubai, followed by a networking lunch with senior colleagues in my institution.

Members also made the most of their time here with visits to their educational partners in the UAE, and to round it off we were able to show them some local hospitality with a desert safari and a visit to the souks in old Dubai and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Jealous? Well, maybe you should be. But not of the exotic location. When it comes down to it, whether the university is 4,000 miles away or just around the corner, we struggle with similar issues and confront more or less the same challenges.

During our Learning Set someone remarked that at the same time there were probably a dozen other Learning Sets happening back in the UK, likewise grappling with quixotic Vice Chancellors and curmudgeonly senior colleagues or trying to make 2+2=5.

So Dubai or Dundee, it’s not the location that makes the difference but the quality of the process. As the AHUA Learning Set description states: “It is a collaborative learning approach which builds on the relationship between experience (action) and reflection.” Relationship is the key to its success.

And this is where the Conrad quotation comes in. For a Learning Set to work, to really get under the skin of the issue at hand (and sometimes of the participants themselves), you need to be brutally open, willing to trust, serene certainly, brave even. It can be a daunting opener to your first senior HE role; it is not always easy listening to the bluntness of colleagues despite thinking you’re fine with being blunt yourself; it will test your patience in others, and it may reveal your own weaknesses and strengths (some of which may be uncomfortable).

But it is not therapy – at least not for me. I’ve been lucky enough to find a group of colleagues who listen and challenge, who meet seemingly intractable issues with guile and wit, who find both concrete answers and avenues of unexplored possibility – despite all of us coming from very different institutions in size, mission, location, and reputation. (This wide variety is something I gather AHUA actively looks for informing its Learning Sets, and it works.)

That we could hold a Learning Set overseas, indeed that we are still meeting regularly over a year after our initial five sessions organised by AHUA had ended and despite a change of country and a closure of institution amongst our group in the meantime, demonstrate the bond we have formed and the benefits we each feel make it worthwhile travelling such a long way.

Through the Learning Set model, AHUA encourages us to offer both challenge and support to each other. I’ve gone through (and out the other side of) many managerial development tools in seven years in the private sector followed by 22 years in HE; this Learning Set is a stayer.

Oh, and if you do fancy some regional fact-finding alongside some wild dune-bashing, look me up if you’re ever in the UAE…

With acknowledgements (and apologies) to my friends Matthew Andrews, Andrew Dodman, Niamh Lamond, Saladin Rospigliosi, and Eileen Schofield – and thanks as ever to Catherine Webb at AHUA who brought us all together in the first place, and to Tessa Brooks who helped forge our friendships (and occasionally made us behave).