An international perspective
Margaret L. Ruwoldt (she/her)
Association for Tertiary Education Management
This story is about ambition and landing your dream job. It’s about what can happen when you take a less-conventional approach to developing your career. And it’s about how an organisation like AUA can help you to add an international perspective to your professional practice.
In 2014 the University of Melbourne reorganised its entire administrative structure. Every professional staff role was reviewed and redesigned; hundreds ceased to exist. Some staff were appointed directly into the new structure; most had to apply for a place, within or outside the university. After supporting my team through their individual career changes, eventually it was my turn.
At this point in the reorganisation there were fewer jobs available, mostly at higher classification levels. I identified five positions to apply for. One in particular caught my interest: it was an individual contributor role, rather than a manager role, with university-wide impact and reporting directly to a senior executive whose work I admired. The selection criteria were spookily similar to the strengths listed in my CV, and the role seemed to offer opportunities for future growth. My ideal job – and I was shortlisted for an interview.
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Two years earlier, at the annual Tertiary Education Management Conference (TEMC), I and two colleagues were inspired by a presentation about the internal staff conference at Western Sydney University. If they could do it, we reasoned, why not the University of Melbourne?
Sally Newton, Mary-Louise (ML) Huppatz and I spent a year or so gathering support, and another year working with a committee of volunteers to stage Melbourne University’s first ever professional staff conference. This was an extra-curricular project for all of us.
As part of the conference’s development phase, I hunted out examples of similar events run by associations and universities around the world. We were looking for inspiration and best practices that could be adapted for the Melbourne context.
This was when I started actively following AUA’s online presence. I was already a member of the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) in Australia. The two associations had a similar purpose, but each had its own way of achieving that purpose. We could learn from each other.
Melbourne University’s first Professional Staff Conference was delivered in September 2014, at the height of the mass-recruitment process, and was a resounding success.
It had been years since my last job interview, so I prepared thoroughly to win that dream job in 2014. Collecting evidence, rehearsing stories of past successes and failures, reading widely about current topics that were likely to be relevant to the role and my (fingers crossed!) new boss.
At the interview my references to international examples were well-received. I decided to continue learning, albeit informally, about university management models, professional associations and staff development programs in the UK, Canada and USA. A few months later I joined AUA as an international member.
A fresh perspective
I’m one of those people who habitually shares links to work-related articles, videos and so on. When the AUA journal, Perspectives, started landing in my in-tray, each issue contained at least one item that would be of interest to colleagues. Soon there were several copies of the magazine, bristling with Post-It notes, circulating amongst the various teams that shared our open-plan office space.
The writing style of Perspectives is more accessible than the more academic style of other journals about higher education policy and management. At the time I joined AUA it was the channel for in-depth communication about our sector and profession. Now the AUA website offers hours of reading and viewing on a broad range of topics, with new content added regularly.
Mentoring across time zones
The announcement about AUA’s new mentoring scheme did not mention whether international mentoring arrangements would be considered. I applied regardless, and was mildly surprised – and very pleased – to receive a warm welcome from the organisers.
The AUA mentoring program is all managed online: applications, matching people to their mentors, and regular meetings via Zoom, Teams or some other videoconference system.
As it turned out, the time-zone difference was exactly what my first mentee wanted. Matching up with somebody from another country is almost a guarantee that your career development challenges will remain confidential. There’s little to no chance that I will ever meet somebody who knows my mentee personally. We meet on a weekday, one hour before work (UK time) and late afternoon (Melbourne time).
It’s been a rewarding experience. We have each learned a bit more about how universities operate in our respective countries, and we’ve shared some resources about other topics of interest.
Over the last couple of years, it’s become plain that many people benefit from increased access to free and low-cost online events and resources: not only people with disabilities but carers, low-income households, people in rural and regional areas, and many more groups for whom face-to-face events are difficult or impossible to attend.
Now that recordings and transcripts are so easy to automate, even time-zones have become less relevant. If you cannot attend a webinar at the scheduled time, you can watch the recording or read the transcript later, and perhaps participate in an asynchronous online conversation with other attendees.
AUA has offered a range of professional development programs and events online since early 2020, including a generous number of sessions that are free to members. I’ve learned some new skills in self-management and team leadership, and I’m reasonably aware of current issues in the UK higher education sector. These are great starting-points for conversations with my Australian colleagues about how we might change our own part of the world.
This kind of learning is available to all international members of AUA. All it takes is an internet connection and an hour of your time.
(Tip: the registration form for free-to-members events doesn’t always work properly for international members. If this happens, you can enrol by emailing the kind and helpful team at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A step further
Associations like AUA rely on volunteers to maintain lively, vigorous networks and conversations across a broad range of topics. You can stay low-key – for example, participating in a member forum or a themed network – or go a step further and get involved with organising and running events and programs.
I’m a particular fan of practitioner-led conferences like those hosted by AUA and ATEM, where professional staff are the organisers, presenters and audience. I’ve twice served as program convenor for the annual conference in Australia and New Zealand, the Tertiary Education Management Conference (TEMC). The Professional Staff Conference at the University of Melbourne, which I helped to establish, will deliver its ninth iteration this year.
So when AUA advertised for conference moderators last year, I put my hand up – and became AUA’s first international moderator. I might not be able to attend the conference in person, but by applying my experience in reviewing abstracts I can help to make it a high-quality event for all involved.
And, once again, the impact and benefit of my AUA international membership resonates far beyond my own individual development. What I learned from AUA about their moderation process ended up feeding into the design and management of this year’s TEMC. I firmly believe this year’s TEMC will be amongst the best ever in terms of format, variety of content, and quality of experience for both attendees and presenters.
Landing that dream job
Of the five roles I applied for in the great reorganisation of 2014, I scored three outright rejections and two interviews.
Reader, I did not get the dream job.
The other interview was a more ambivalent experience, and I wasn’t at all sure I was capable of doing the management job that was eventually offered. In hindsight, though, the learning journey I had embarked on via AUA was exactly what I needed.
Carrying that mindset into the new job, I was ready to quickly absorb a lot of new, specialist knowledge – and feel like I was keeping up with my tremendously smart and experienced team members. What I brought to this new team’s whiteboard (we didn’t use tables much) was a newly-refreshed international perspective and an assumption that continuous learning is essential for a high level of team performance.
Leading that team for the next three years turned out to be a highlight of my career in university management.
The Tertiary Education Management Conference (TEMC) will be held:
- online Friday 9 September
- and in Hobart, Tasmania, Sunday 11 to Wednesday 14 September 2022
The Friday online program features:
- keynote by respected investigative journalist and author Leigh Sales
- international panel discussion on universities after COVID
- around 20 concurrent sessions presented by professional staff from Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand)
Registration for the Friday online program is A$275 per person. Recordings will be available for rewatching after the conference.
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Also in this issue of Development Monthly