Pilgrimage and Purpose: A Personal Reflection on AHUA

Dr Jonathan Nicholls, Registrary at the University of Cambridge, reflects on his three years as Chair of AHUA, on the key roles members play within their institutions, and looks forward to the forthcoming AHUA Spring Conference hosted by his university.

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perched to the roote

…Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”

Chaucer was right and Eliot wrong: April isn’t the cruellest month and when April comes our “folk”, the members of AHUA, turn their pilgrimage to the annual Spring Conference, this year hosted by my University, Cambridge, a place which appears several times in Geoffrey’s works (although his Clerk comes from Oxford). The medieval is still present in Cambridge, a city that last year had a growth rate of 7%, powered in part by the ideas that universities provide for their regional economies. I must have one of the most privileged daily commutes in the country – a 10 minute cycle ride across one of the ancient fens in Cambridge – full of wildlife – then along King’s Parade to my office behind a magnificent 18th century arcade which fronts The Old Schools – the original site of the University made possible by a gift of land in 1264.

I have just completed a three-year term as Chair of AHUA preceded by six years as a Deputy Chair. That has been a privileged and enriching part of my career which now stretches back over 30 years. Moments of conferences past stand out: my first (AHUA was then the Conference of Registrars and Secretaries) when there was but one female registrar, there was a wives’ programme, golf, and gentlemen were invited to wear medals for the black tie dinner. I haven’t missed many conferences down the years. I remember the early morning azure flash of a kingfisher under the Bridge of Sighs when the conference was last in Cambridge; more recently, the extraordinary success and welcome of Edge Hill; the beauty of Exeter, of Stirling, and the wonderful diversity of university cities and towns, always welcoming, always of great interest. And always the colleagues, the buzz, the friendship, the shared experiences. Like many, I have been lucky to build lifelong friendships and professional networks from AHUA. Like a family, there has been the pleasure of others’ success, the sadness for those who have left (sometimes not at their choosing), and the delight at new arrivals as the kaleidoscope of our profession and higher education changes patterns and refracts in different ways the imperatives of government, the needs of society and our students and staff.

AHUA is borderless, not riven by mission groups, and is now diverse, in rude health, and increasingly influential. We worry about whether the registrar-role is endangered; we chafe at ephemeral and modish management structures; we are fearful of increased specialisation and the dizzying instability of national policy. Yet our roles, whatever they are called, whomsoever we report to or whom reports to us, are vital. Recently on a long cycle ride I had the pleasure of breaking my journey one night in the home of a former Bishop who had deftly led a once troubled See. We exchanged stories and experiences of our jobs. The Bishop said that we shared many professional things in common, not least that it was our responsibility to deal with “the dark side” of our organisations. How true. When events or people go wrong, who ya gonna call Vice-Chancellor? Thomas(ina) Cromwell. But it is we who also provide the connecting sinews and ligaments that articulate the joints of the university. We can animate the body, provide the signals from the brain, the new ideas, the forethought, and, yes, the wisdom and gravitas. We don’t do this alone. We know the power of teams and the strength of consensus. These skills are so very much needed now when the pressure on finances, badly-formed ideas from Government of how the sector should be regulated and expanded, contemporary threats from extremism, harassment, the benefits but hazards of social media, and the faster revolving door of leadership, can easily blow the mishandled ship of state to a lee shore.

The role of AHUA is to work with government and sector organisations to be a respected professional voice that draws upon all parts of the UK and all types of university. That voice is the more powerful because our strategy also foregrounds personal and professional development through coaching, learning sets, programmes for aspiring registrars and a graduate training scheme. We care about our members, and perhaps the most important thing to them are the networks and the gatherings, at regional and national level.

As many of us begin our annual pilgrimage to the Conference, I reflect upon a three-year term as Chair during which the growing impact of higher fees, the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, and the government’s wish to create a market in higher education have catalysed a period of historic rethinking about higher education, its shape, purposes, and relationship to society. AHUA has been a major contributor to the debates about these events. Nor is the revolution over. There is more to come: new primary legislation to carry forward the English Green Paper; reform of the REF; a battle of wills about who owns quality assessment; that introduction of the TEF; Prevent; Europe; regional and national devolution. We face a period of enormous opportunity and enormous risk. Never before have universities so needed gifted, resolute and steadying professional leaders. Never before has AHUA had so much purpose and so much to bring to the future of our universities.

Medieval pilgrimage was an act of respect for the enduring values and sacrifice of those who had shaped the contemporary state of the believer’s religion. It was also an opportunity for holiday and creating bonds between different members of society sometimes on perilous journeys. As we join together in Cambridge, I hope that our Conference will unite these purposes – a place for reflection on the shaping values of higher education, a time for enjoyment and delight in new and old friends, a time away from the office, and a time for renewing our purposes as leaders in a cause that matters more than ever, however uncertain the journey ahead.