Author: Sally Lewis, Placements Officer, Faculty of Science
The first AUA talk of this year was given by Mark Humphriss, the University Secretary, who gave a very informative insight into the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and immigration - two of the significant issues facing universities today.
Mark began his talk with a brief career history, explaining how his move into higher education at Bath 10 years ago followed 17 years working in a number of roles for the Church of England, including leading a major review of the structures of the Church and working for a national charity and a secondment in the North East. It was through his role managing relationships with the 11 universities of Church of England foundation that he began to have contact with universities and recognised the similarities between the two sectors – both having similar policy issues and working cultures.
Commenting on his move into a new sector, he noted how helpful he found his professional association (the AHUA – the Association of Heads of University Administration) in connecting him with others in HE and enabling him to gain an understanding of the working culture.
In his current role, Mark is part of the senior management of the University - part of the Vice- Chancellor’s Group (VCG) - and has a number of University-wide roles, including chairing the Equality and Diversity Committee and the Emergency Management Team – which has to deal with anything from heavy snow falls on Claverton Down to a field trip stuck in Honduras. On a departmental level, his responsibilities include the Secretariat, the Legal Office and student immigration. Reputation management is a big part of his role and responding to a question about Freedom of Information (FoI), he described the tension between the desire of universities to be open in how they respond to FoI requests and the way in which information once in the public domain, can be used to cause less favourable impressions of those organisations.
Responsibility for events such as degree ceremonies and the operational side of the recent 50th Anniversary celebration also fall under Mark’s remit as does managing the relationship with the Chancellor, which with our current Chancellor, means working within royal protocols as well. The Government’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy has involved Mark in some interesting and robust discussions with the UCU and the Students’ Union when negotiating policies for external speakers.
Externally, Mark is part of the National Executive of the AHUA and has previously chaired its southern region. He is a Governor of the RUH, a Director of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and a Trustee of the Holburne Museum.
Moving on to discuss the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Mark explained that in the last few years the CMA (formerly the Office of Fair Trading) has begun to focus on the practices of higher education institutions and concluded that the university sector was perceived to have too much freedom from consumer regulations, with some institutions levying academic sanctions (such as withholding degree confirmation) for non-academic matters (such as the non-payment of rent) for example.
The CMA has concluded that students (paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees) should be regarded as consumers for the purpose of consumer legislation. This has had a number of far reaching consequences for universities – a number of whom have been publicly named as falling short of CMA legislation. Here at Bath, Mark chairs the Consumer Regulation Steering Group and much work has been done - with Terms and Conditions now being sent to every offer holder and trying to ensure that all information provided on (our over 100,000) web pages and at Open Days, will remain valid throughout the duration of a course. This may involve more generic and less detailed information being in the public domain with students receiving more detailed information about courses once here. He noted that there can be a tension between the desire for transparency and the desire to innovate and progress with course development. Failure to comply with CMA legislation can have financial penalties although the reputational damage of such failure would potentially be more detrimental.
Mark concluded his talk by discussing the significant consequences for universities of the current political agenda around immigration. Attendance monitoring of students holding Tier 4 visas is a mandatory requirement for universities. Failure to meet requirements can lead to a university losing its license to sponsor visas – resulting in the institution not being able to recruit international students and its current students having to leave the country, a huge impact for any institution. At Bath the increase in processes and resource needed to fulfil this requirement has led to the recent establishment of the Student Immigration Service of 13 staff. Universities also have to operate in an environment where rule changes have been brought into force with little or no notice or consultation with the sector. This was illustrated in April this year, where changes resulted in those students extending their course - to undertake a placement, for example - having to return to their home countries at short notice to extend their visas. As well as concerns for students, Mark also noted concerns for the implications of changes on international staff.
… and with that our time was up. Many thanks to Mark for his time and for this glimpse into the working life of our University Secretary.