Asking the Vice-Chancellor: How should registrars change in these changing times?

Registrars need to change in these changing times. Mike Shore-Nye, Registrar and Secretary at the University of Exeter, speaks to his Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, Professor Sir Steve Smith, to gain his insights on how we can best adapt to the challenges of COVID-19.

New insights, new voices

This is a time of intense change for our sector.

As such, I thought I should change my approach for my next few blog posts.

Rather than reflect on my experiences as Registrar, I have chosen to gather new insights for your attention. I sought the voices of those who oversee, govern, or experience professional services.

I hope this will help me ensure that the focus of my leadership is meeting the new challenges that COVID-19 has set us all, and that my key stakeholders are now facing.

Over the past month, I have interviewed our:

  • Vice-Chancellor
  • Provost
  • Chair of Council
  • Guild of Students Chief Executive
  • Guild of Students President.

I began each interview with a simple request for honest, open, and personal reflections on what they see as the current challenges facing registrars in these unprecedented times.

I hope that their responses give you as much food for thought as they gave me. I will publish these over the next month as we all gear up for the new academic year.

Asking the Vice-Chancellor

Firstly, I interviewed our Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, Professor Sir Steve Smith.

Steve is quite rightly regarded as one of the best vice-chancellors of his generation. I have been fortunate enough to learn from his inspirational leadership since joining Exeter five years ago.

Steve is now coming to the end of his 18-year tenure as Vice-Chancellor before becoming the new UK government international education champion. He will be handing over to Professor Lisa Roberts who joins us from Leeds in September 2020.

Below is a summary of my interview with Steve.

In your opinion, what do you see as being the key attributes and skills for an effective registrar?

  • Trust – This is the number one attribute, on which the relationship between the vice-chancellor and registrar is based. This is a delicate skill requiring open communications, no surprises, and, most importantly, no punishment!
  • Absolute competence – Allowing the vice-chancellor the confidence to hand over challenges to the registrar knowing that they’ll deal with it.
  • Line management – The ability to manage the professional services team.
  • Relationship management – Firstly, with senior academics, and secondly, with the governors. The registrar sometimes has to mediate between these groups.

What are the most important things a registrar should be concentrating on during the pandemic?

  • Safety – The registrar has to be the custodian of the safety of the community.
  • Sheer administrative competence – Running the crisis, dealing with, and controlling, complex issues, whilst managing the information flow. The registrar becomes the filter for how every activity of the university filters up to the vice-chancellor and governors.
  • Handling the balanced interest of the institution – A strong partnership between vice-chancellor, registrar and provost helps to maintain this balance.

What do you think the key challenges will be, as we move from the current stage of the pandemic to the medium and longer term?

  • Campus – Are we going to be teaching on campus throughout the next academic year?
  • Teaching – What does it mean to deliver first-class teaching in a blended way during the 2021/22 academic year?
  • Digital – Do we have the right IT and digital capacity, capability and resilience and how can we make sure we do?
  • Safety – Can we make our campus buildings COVID-secure?
  • Student experience – Do we have the right staff in the right places to help students navigate their way through this difficult year? Can we help them enjoy their experience, and be successful in their studies? These risks are exponential around the international student experience.
  • International recruitment – Have we got contingency plans in place to deal with drops in international student numbers? Are our mitigations and savings plans in the place?
  • Capital – Do we still invest in building when we have delivered so much remotely? Do we risk losing our research teams to international competitors if we stop being ambitious and creating world-class facilities? What’s the right level of investment when we need to manage cash flows so carefully?
  • Differentiation – Where do we all fit in the new market? What does that imply for the university, longer term? Could we lose our students to online providers if the experience on campus is not what they expect?
  • Research – Can we compete on the research base after mitigating COVID losses?
    Staff – What kind of shape of professional services do we need for this new future? Will the same team be suitable in two years? What kind of professional services will we need to deliver in this complex context?
  • Traditional operations – Can we still afford to run a safe, traditional, on-campus operation? If not, how will we differentiate and compete?
  • Working locations – Where will our professional services teams be based? At home, on campus, or a mixture depending on job role?

I have spent the last month or so working through these questions, as no doubt many of you have been too.

In facing up to these challenges, Steve made a point at the end of our conversation which really shaped my thinking:

“We must face up to the disturbing, if liberating, reality that the past is no longer the best guide for how we solve the problems created by the pandemic, or how we imagine the best possible future for our universities.”

I think this will resonate with all of us, as we look forward.

Mike Shore-Nye is the Registrar and Secretary at the University of Exeter.