David Duncan: ‘a university campus is much more than a workplace’

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pic credit: Suzy Harrison
Registrars play a critical role in achieving change and bringing universities’ disparate workforce together. The University of York’s registrar David Duncan tells Efficiency Exchange about breaking down the silo mentality and the need to increase the pace of change in higher education.

1. What are the biggest efficiency challenges at York?

The biggest challenge is ensuring that the professional services provide integrated support for teaching, learning and research. Related to this, we aim to provide a seamless service that enhances every aspect of the student experience.  

2. Any successes you’d like to highlight?

The comparative work we have undertaken suggests that York is lean – probably one of the leanest in the Russell Group. At the same time, we have benchmarked ourselves in terms of staff satisfaction with professional support, achieving a 77% satisfaction rate compared to an average of 72%. The 77% figure was particularly pleasing as it was 2% higher than in the last annual survey.

3. Can you describe the leadership challenges that registrars face in terms of encouraging cultural change within universities?

Most registrars provide operational leadership of all or a majority of the professional support services in their institutions. They play a key role in understanding the needs of the academic and student community and ensuring that the services they manage address those needs. A second challenge concerns the role of the registrar in the senior management of the university – registrars have to identify completely with the strategic goals of the institution while also representing the interests of the professional support services. Finally, they provide a critical link between governance and management, making sure that the governing body can do its job effectively while allowing the vice chancellor and his or her executive officers to do theirs.

4. In a blog for the AHUA, you suggest that universities should be open to ideas from other sectors while not following every fad. Are there any ideas from outside HE that you have found particularly useful?

Before becoming a university registrar, I worked for a non-departmental public body – a quango, to use the less polite term – which dealt with the school curriculum in Scotland. That body was particularly good, I thought, at balancing the needs of disparate stakeholders – in their case children, parents, central government, local authorities, teachers and the business community.  

More recently, I have been impressed by the way business-focused bodies like the 30% Club address issues such as equality, diversity and inclusion by relating them to their business needs – rather than seeing them as a distraction, they identify how addressing equality and diversity issues can make their businesses more effective and give them a competitive edge.

At a broader level, I think higher education has much to learn from the speed at which the private sector moves. It takes too long to achieve change in universities – in today’s globally competitive market, we need to move much faster.

5. In the same blog you reflect that university professional services are now more effective than a generation ago because they are made up of specialists, but sometimes at the price of unity of mission. How have you tried to overcome this at York?

Most people would recognise that support services have become increasingly professionalised over the past few decades. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it can exacerbate the departmental culture or silo mentality than can develop in most big organisations.  

Registrars can help to counter this by fostering a strong team spirit across the services and by encouraging colleagues to work together. This applies at all levels – everyone should be enjoined to demonstrate how they are collaborating with staff from other professional backgrounds and teams to solve common problems.  

6. What do you enjoy most about your role?

The parts of the job I gain the most satisfaction from are estates matters, personnel-related issues and working with students.  

Beyond that, I relish the strong sense of community in the university.  It is a vibrant and very exciting place which pulsates with new and challenging ideas. Where else can you meet so many super-intelligent people, and attend for free so many high quality lectures, debates, performances and concerts?   

A university campus is much more than a workplace and I for one couldn’t conceive of plying my trade in any other sector.

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Rosie Niven
Rosie is the content editor at Efficiency Exchange