Skip to main content Accessibility Statement

6 December 2021

Looking back at the QAA Northern Ireland Conference: Contemporary issues in higher education


Elizabeth Shackels

Quality Assurance Manager

South West College




Elizabeth Shackels and her team at South West College worked closely with QAA on the QAA Northern Ireland Conference which took place in October and saw nearly 300 participants come together to discuss current themes in higher education. In this blog, she reflects on the experience and the value of bringing the sector together in challenging times.

Given the circumstances we have all encountered over the past 18 months, it is refreshing to finally come together, albeit virtually, and engage with others in the higher education sector. On 15 October 2021, the QAA Northern Ireland Conference came together after many months of planning and provided a platform to discuss enhancement and current themes within higher education.


While switching to remote working was an unexpected modification to the 2020 curriculum delivery, it has enabled us to better utilise the increased opportunities to engage with others. We were fortunate to meet with the excellent QAA team on a regular basis through video calls, and throughout the past few months we pulled together our resources and watched the conference slowly take shape.


There were a number of key considerations along the way…


Conference content: Content is key when it comes to engaging the audience. Whilst staying on topic we needed to ensure that the workshops provided would appeal to the masses, in addition to providing new and interesting content with practical applications. The overall theme of the QAA Northern Ireland Conference was ‘enhancement and current themes in higher education’. Through multiple discussions the following workshop topics were identified:

  • Blended learning
  • Developing enhancement
  • Student voice
  • Sustainability
  • Degree apprenticeships
  • Dissertation supervision

Within these virtual times we are able to take advantage of experts from a wide range of backgrounds to impart their wisdom without the necessity of clearing their schedules and travelling cross-country. QAA supported this process by hand selecting a number of academics from across the UK who would be capable of capturing the audience and sharing their best practice. Furthermore, we were able to benefit from the shared expertise of our keynote speakers: Alastair Delaney (QAA), Vicki Stott (QAA) and Martin Weller (OU).


Putting our ideas into practice: With the topics identified and our experts secured, our next step was to consider how we put these ideas into practice. There were a number of questions running through our minds at this stage which would determine the success of the conference…


How do you ensure the engagement of attendees in this remote environment?

How can you develop an agenda that takes advantage of keynote speakers, a variety of different sessions, networking opportunities and more?

How can you undertake all of this whilst ensuring a streamlined process?


Engagement is key: When attending a face-to-face conference, we are embedded into the real-world conference environment. We are surrounded by our peers and focused on those who have travelled to share their knowledge and expertise. We clear our calendars, dress for the event, open our minds to new knowledge and practice, and open the door to new networking opportunities. So how can this work in the new virtual world?


Efficiency, access and flexibility: With our audience attending from the comfort of their own homes and offices we can capture their minds for the duration of the event, but still allow the real world to continue. No longer do we face the barriers of travelling far and wide, clearing our schedules and covering our classes. For this conference we were able to attract a large number of attendees from across the globe, a feat that would never have happened had this taken place in the pre-Covid climate. Our collaboration with QAA allowed us to approach a wider demographic and truly take advantage of our shared networks. Furthermore, QAA provided recordings for the sessions that took place, ensuring increased access to all.


Building a conference agenda: To keep everyone engaged it is essential that the agenda is both appealing and aligns with the goals of the event. With a wide array of attendees, it is crucial that you can pick and choose the topics that most appeal to your interests and line of work. QAA provided us with an excellent format. After our keynote speakers left the virtual stage, attendees were able to choose from multiple different workshops running concurrently and build their own personalised agenda throughout the day. At the close of the conference all of the themes and topics were tied together through a ‘Meet the Experts’ session, pulling questions in from each of the topics discussed throughout the day, further increasing the engagement with both the experts and attendees.


Streamlined process: None of the above would have been successful if it hadn’t been for the hard work and dedication of the QAA team on the day. They provided both an excellent platform for our conference as well as comprehensive tech support to ensure that everyone had a positive experience and was able to navigate their way through the event. Attendees were also able to build up their profiles and make use of the networking opportunities available on the platform.


As much as we all miss the face-to-face networking, including the opportunity for a change of scenery and to sample the hospitality and environment of a new location, there is still a lot to say for the opportunities available in current times. With the support and guidance of QAA we were given the opportunity to successfully engage with individuals both nationally and internationally from the comfort of our own homes and offices, share expertise and best practice, and still leave feeling that good old fashioned conference buzz.