Reflections on Retiring

Robin Geller, former Registrar and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Bristol, reflects on her career in higher education and her recent decision to retire.

October the 5th marked my last day at the University of Bristol. I have spent the past few weeks adjusting to a new, post-work life and am pleased to report that the early indications are positive. I do seem to keep forgetting things, but I’m hoping that this over-relaxation of the brain is reversible.

I have been asked a number of times why I have chosen to retire at a fairly young age. The simple answer is: because I can. The real answer is more complex, and this blog gives me the opportunity to reflect on the mix of pull and push factors – and to offer a few words of advice to those for whom retirement may be some years away.

On the ‘pull’ side – I wanted to join my husband in retirement. He has been retired for a few years, we are both in good health and I want to enjoy an active retirement. I am also very fortunate to have the financial wherewithal to have made early retirement an option.

On the ‘push’ side are the less positive drivers that have featured significantly in my decision to step away. The roles of Registrar/Secretary/COO et al have become, in my view, immeasurably more difficult since I joined the UK higher education sector 12 years ago, when I moved to the UK from Canada.  Many of these changes are reflected or represented in the almost endless list of acronyms that characterise the current landscape: KIS, VFM, UKVI, NSS, REF, KEF, TEF, HERA, DLHE, OfS, USS, CUC, UCU, DSA, ECU, UCAS and OFFA to name but a few.

The regulatory changes have, taken together, fundamentally changed the sector. However, the one change that I believe has had the single greatest impact on the sector, and on our roles, was the decision to remove the cap on undergraduate student numbers.  This has, in turn, impacted universities’ finances and has created a level of competition within the sector that has far-reaching implications.

In some cases, these adjustments were long overdue and have improved the quality of the student experience. In other cases, the changes imposed by successive governments, with a variety of motivations, have been misconceived and poorly implemented. They have created unnecessary and often expensive burdens for universities, with little or no genuine positive impact. I have been particularly saddened by efforts that require universities to address failures of the state education system and the NHS (particularly as it relates to mental health).

Whatever one’s views of the relative impact and merit of the forces that have been shaping the sector, it seems indisputable that universities have faced an unprecedented quantum of change in the past decade. This has, in turn, had a profound impact on the roles of AHUA members, which we ignore at our peril. Our jobs are more complex, the stakes are higher, the pressures are greater, and it is harder to do our jobs well. Many of us are regularly burning the candle at both ends and stretching ourselves very thin in order to stay on top of our briefs. We need on the one hand to be contributing meaningfully to ‘big picture’, strategic thinking, while at the same time ensuring that the services we are responsible for are performing optimally and delivering value for money. This can easily become unsustainable, taking a high toll on one’s mental and physical health.

So, I want to offer some parting advice on how can we better sustain the demands of our increasingly stressful roles. None of this is rocket science, of course, but I hope that it may serve as a useful reminder of things we all know.

  1. Be kind to your colleagues on the senior team and to the members of your own team. Make your appreciation visible. It’s easy to become short-tempered, but life is short, and we spend a lot of it working. We all do better work when we know we are valued and appreciated.
  2. Develop networks within and outside of your university. It is easy to feel isolated in our roles. It takes time and effort to develop networks – and genuine connections – but it’s worth it. Having trusted colleagues who you can turn to in difficult times can make a world of difference.
  3. Look after your own physical and mental health. Running has been my ‘go to’ stress reliever for many years. I’ve also recently become a convert to short daily meditations (using an app). You will know what your own relief mechanisms are – make sure that you make time for them, particularly if you are balancing the need to be a good parent and partner alongside the day job.

I haven’t always been as good as I would have liked at following my own advice, hence my decision to leave a job that I have enjoyed (most of the time) and to leave a university that I have loved.

I am looking forward to the next phase of my life, but will be following the developments in the sector with considerable interest and affection.  I do hope that many of you will stay in touch.