UAS Conference 2011

Tuesday saw this year’s UAS Conference taking place in the University Examination Schools. This annual event brings together staff from around the University with the aim of exchanging information about things happening in the University Administration and Services Division. OUCS officially joined UAS in January of this year (moving from ASUC), so although we have been invited to present / attend in the past, there was perhaps a sense in which our presence was cast in a different light this time around.

The UAS Conference and ICTF Conference are quite different affairs. Where the ICTF Conference has a backbone of plenaries with workshops woven around them, the UAS Conference programme is much more open with up to 11 concurrent workshops (either 30 minutes or hour-long). These are organised in four hour-long slots, with an opening plenary (this year given by the Registrar under whom UAS sits), and a closing panel Q&A session.

Workshop topics are quite diverse, as you might expect given the diversity of operations within UAS itself. Some, such as “Using assertiveness to improve communication in the workplace”, are bite-sized training sessions, whilst others such as “X5 Project: an update”, aim to communicate about current activities and future plans.

I made it along to 5 sessions, interspersed with lots of ad hoc discussions as I bumped into colleagues from all parts of the University.

Toward Coordinated Central ICT provided an update on work to bring together BSP, ICTST, and OUCS. The presentation was given by Anne Trefethen who is leading the project, and outlined key features of the project and current thinking. The project’s objectives are to create a more coordinated service for users, and to increase efficiency and effectiveness. A high-level schedule was outlined: identify opportunies 0 – 6 months; quick wins, planning, revised governance model, and initial consolidation 6 – 12 months; implementation of plans 12 – 24 months; completing implementation of new organisational structure 24 – 36 months, and we were given an indication of what the revised governance model might look like.

Understanding the JRAM and the Infrastructure Charge – second time round for me – showed how incoming funds such as student fees are divided and distributed amongst the academic divisions, departments, and colleges, and how a portion of this is then claimed back from divisions to fund central University operations. Some fine animated visuals made it easy to understand what is in fact quite a complex model (the JRAM). The workshop went on to describe how the 123 Infrastructure Charge then determines how much should be pulled back from academic departments, and on this I will attempt to provide a summary.

The 123 Infrastructure Charge works on the basis that the cost of centrally provided services are related to academic departments in one of 3 main ways. Type 1 services (e.g. divisional office) are consumed by specific divisions, so the cost is essentially a direct cost to that division. Type 2 services (e.g. student admin, estates) are shared by several departments, and the cost is distributed amongst these according to an appropriate measure of “level of use” which may vary depending on the service (e.g. student numbers, floor space, annual turnover, etc). Type 3 services do not have a usage-based link to divisions, and are subdivided into those for which the divisions can reasonably be expected to pay (e.g. VC/Registrar, PRAS), and those for which divisions cannot be expected to pay (e.g. University Parks, museums). In a slightly Douglas Adams-esque fashion, the 123 Infrastructure Charge includes a fourth category of “service to service” charge where the costs of a service which is only consumed indirectly by divisions (such as BSP) is redistributed across the directly consumed services prior to the apportionment calculation.

The Worst Website in the World made extensive – almost exclusive – use of audience participation to describe the most annoying web site we could cumulatively imagine. By suggesting how to achieve the opposite of each annoyance we then discovered how to create something which isn’t the worst website in the world. The notes that we typed up will be published soon on a …website… near you!

What’s Religion and Belief got to do with me? This workshop, offered by the Equality and Diversity Unit, raised awareness of legislation changes introduced in the Equality Act 2010, and ongoing work to explore perceptions of how well the University understands accommodates those with particular religions and belief systems. An interesting session from which I took away two points: one of the areas most commonly raised as a problem by survey respondents was college food, and the Equality and Diversity Office is an excellent source of advice and assistance.

Sharing Services: what do you think we can do? was another facilitated discussion, with the audience encouraged to think about the opportunities for greater sharing of services within the University, what could be stopped in order to release resources to do this, and how to get the ball rolling. What made this particularly interesting for me – coming from OUCS – was hearing about the opportunities for non-IT services to be shared.

The day was rounded off with a panel Q&A session. The questions were the sort of thing you might expect – “What do you see as the biggest challenges / opportunities facing us”, “How can a democratic governance ensure that every voice is heard”, … However it was two of the panels responses that I will remember.

The first was in response to a question about colleges and the university working together – the push and pull of centralisation. Tim Gardam provided one of the best expressions of the value in Oxford’s organisational (un)structure. He said that the University structure is two-dimensional – it could be viewed as a vertical structure within the divisions, cross-cut by the colleges. This is a very modern (matrix) structure, and provides great resilience because a vulnerability to current conditions in one structure can be bolstered by strength in the other. He went on to say that this also enables the Collegiate University to provide students, tutors, and researchers, with an experience that is both “big and small” – vast yet personal.

The second was from a panel member who joined the University just 7 weeks ago. Her comment was that Oxford “is like no other place”. Yes indeed, there’s no cookie-cutter for Oxford, despite what some consultants would have us believe – long live innovation!

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