Where was that crystal ball?

As her tenure as chair of College and University Business Officers (CUBO) comes to an end, Gillian Almond reflects on the most challenging year the higher education sector has faced in living memory…

The last year has certainly been a rollercoaster – possibly the equivalent of Alton Tower’s infamous Nemesis.

And yet, out of adversity has come immense courage, commitment and positive momentum. The sector has dug deep (and fast), in order to find new solutions and support students and staff through new ways of working and extreme circumstances that we could never have predicted this time last year.

The most notable element for me over this period has been connectivity. The old adage that ‘together we are stronger’ has been particularly relevant. It has become evident just how much people value collaboration and sharing of learnings and practice.

At the start of the pandemic, no-one had the answers. No-one had managed a university through a pandemic before and everything you take for granted, across systems, process, and logistics, suddenly no longer applies. How are you going to approach it? What services will you be able to, or allowed to, provide? Clearly, the best possible service that you can – but what does this mean?

No-one had managed a university through a pandemic before and everything you take for granted, across systems, process, and logistics, suddenly no longer applies

One person might come up with some of the answers and solutions, and someone else will come up with more, and it is this collaboration that has proven so powerful during the last year.

In fact, it was lucky that in early March 2020, as rumours of the pandemic were starting to take hold, the CUBO board met in London to look at our membership model and strategy and consider the year ahead. We were able to review strategy and identify where we could add further value to our members, which proved to be timely and valuable, as within four weeks we were in lockdown.

And we all identified with one single, forward objective: connectivity! CUBO, as an organisation, wants to connect commercial services professionals better and more effectively. We looked at what information and opportunities our members’ value, and how to communicate and get information to members in a way that meets their needs.

Our CEO and team subsequently created a programme of roundtables, webinars, special interest groups and data gathering, which was communicated out as quickly as possible, as the pandemic took hold.

We also sought to connect with governments and other sector bodies to represent our members’ interests and share emerging guidance.

The strategy and approach worked well, and appeared to be exactly what our members wanted, representing their values and enabling them to feel reassured that what they were doing was right, when looking into the unknown with no precedents to follow.

CUBO is now seen as an expert voice (something which we struggled with in previous years), and this is a significant step forward in our journey

In the last year, CUBO institutional membership grew by 10% and individual membership has doubled from 300 to 600, giving CUBO a highly engaged and inclusive community of commercial services professionals working in HE and FE across the UK and Ireland. This is something I am personally very proud of, and feel that CUBO has been truly there to support its members at a time of crisis.

Planning lost much of its meaning in 2020, and this applied to CUBO as much as everybody else. Changing our Winter Conference to a virtual event was a risk, but one that paid off with fantastic levels of engagement and some amazing speakers.

On the basis of ‘together we are stronger’, we also worked closely with other sector bodies to develop continuity and understand what was happening across their membership, and this collaboration and connectivity will continue into 2021 and beyond.

Our special interest groups have proven to be a powerful medium, whether focussed on business area or region. For example, our London group has been meeting fortnightly throughout the pandemic, our marketing group is running best practice communications events for all members, and we are pleased to be supporting conferencing and contract catering groups, which all have a bespoke focus and strong engagement.

When I’m asked which elements of being chair of CUBO I feel most proud to leave as my legacy, I would need to speak on behalf of the whole board and staff of CUBO. Achievements are theirs not mine alone, so speaking on behalf of the whole team:  

  • The increased recognition we have been given at government level. CUBO is now seen as an expert voice (something which we struggled with in previous years), and this is a significant step forward in our journey.
  • The level of help and support we have been able to provide our members with in the last year has been evidenced by the notable uplift in engagement across our web site and digital events.
  • Our membership levels – doubling the individual membership and 10% spike in institutional memberships – are further evidence of the value we provide. We have also widened our membership to FE colleges to help support and share the knowledge we hold.

And what’s next for me?  I stepped down from the CUBO board not to step into anything else, but to give someone else the opportunity to get the experience that I have been lucky enough to enjoy. It has been a fantastic time and I would encourage anybody who is considering joining the Board to apply, you will work with a team of amazing people and be exposed to opportunities to develop and grow new skills and insights.

Gillian Almond is director of commercial services at Royal Holloway, University of London, and served as CUBO chair from August 2019 until August 2020.

You might also like: ‘Incredible work’ praised at 2020 CUBO Winter Conference

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