6 July 2020

Reflections on the role of the registrar in the age of Covid – by Dr David Duncan

Long term AQ client Dr David Duncan, COO and University Secretary at the University of Glasgow, reflects on the role of registrar in the age of COVID.  David’s article was first published on AHUA’s website in June 2020 and is shared here with his kind permission.

Saul among the prophets
Reflections on the role of the registrar in the age of Covid

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Old Testament story of Saul, son of Kish.  On one occasion, the future king met a band of prophets from out of town and, joining them, demonstrated that he too could prophesy. This amazed those who knew him.  The phrase “Saul among the prophets” became a proverb overnight and is still used to denote an individual who shows unexpected talents.

With the advent of Covid-19, university registrars and COOs across the UK are having to develop new skills on a daily basis.  In unprecedented circumstances, heads of university administration are stepping up to the mark in a whole range of areas.  We are all learning on the job and mistakes will happen as we feel our way forward – as one of our lay governors put it, it’s like doing a jigsaw without having the picture in front of you.  Even so, in many ways, the crisis plays to the traditional strengths of the registrar – the capacity to respond rapidly when the emergency bell is ringing; an ability to bring together disparate groups of professionals in a common cause; a focus on supporting students and academic activity; a facility to communicate clearly with all stakeholders; and an unrelenting concern to protect the institution in the face of new threats.

I wouldn’t dream of advising colleagues what they should be doing in these difficult times, but it might be worth reflecting on a few of the key challenges we are confronting.

Perhaps the hardest is to coordinate action while the large majority of staff are separated from each other, with many juggling work and caring responsibilities.  We are used to analysing data in long, face-to-face meetings – our natural domain is the working group which deliberates on issues at length, passes them onto another committee, and slowly builds consensus; now we have to turn on a sixpence, making decisions in hours which previously might have taken six months; and having reached a conclusion on the basis of inadequate information, we have to convey it with conviction to the wider community.

As in normal times, the need to craft the offer for current and prospective students is constantly on our minds.  Most universities have made a huge effort to look after their students, distributing hardship funds, releasing students from residence contracts and providing personalised support at a distance.  We have also successfully shifted assessments online and are developing coherent offers for the learning experience in the next academic year but doing this without knowing what the rules will be in a few months’ time is the devil of a job.  Personally, I’m optimistic that most students will weigh up their options and decide that an on-campus experience with a combination of online and face-to-face teaching is preferable to a year off, when travel and job opportunities will be restricted.

The need to communicate effectively is something everyone appreciates but in practice, getting it right is fraught with difficulties.  Like every other institution, we are using a mix of emails, social media, Facebook live sessions and video conferences with key groups, coupled with the issue of short guides and FAQs for particular constituencies; we are also using the mainstream media and liaising constantly with government bodies, both through sector-wide groups and institutionally. But it’s easy to get the tone of communications wrong, and at a time of heightened anxiety, the response on social media can be instantaneous and vicious.  We have seen a few examples nationally of ill-conceived communications which have gone down badly with staff and students; we are all only a tweet away from a major PR disaster.

Protecting the reputation of your university – a key if sometimes unwritten part of the registrar’s job description – is doubly difficult when events are moving so swiftly.  Mis-steps are easy to make when there isn’t time to form a position in the usual way; advising senior colleagues and shaping agreement with the governing body is tricky when we are all working from home.  On the other hand, the crisis affords new opportunities to highlight the value of HE, locally and nationally.  Across our institutions, people are eager to make a difference as volunteers, running testing centres, trialling vaccines, developing new treatments, advising on public health policy and looking after the vulnerable.  We are well positioned to counter some of the opprobrium directed at universities in recent years; we should use our intellect and energies to provide solutions and then tell the world what we are doing.

Finally, one part of the registrar role which remains vital is the need to keep calm and avoiding hysterical over-reaction – even when we’re feeling a little hysterical ourselves.  The crisis will pass – it may already be passing – and the fundamental strength of our institutions will ensure our long-term success.  Good judgement, common sense and compassion for others should be our watchwords – and also a willingness to pick up best practice through networks like the AHUA.  If we keep our heads and rely on our innate abilities, we will soon see the broad, sunlit uplands ahead of us.

by Dr David Duncan