This term has been enormously turbulent for universities, coming off the back of an intensive summer of planning and preparation.
University staff are exhausted, both from the demands of planning, and then un- and re-planning, changes for Covid-19, and from the baseline state of existential anxiety that comes with living through a pandemic.
As with so much else, Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief some of the sector’s entrenched cultures, habits and practices that have a detrimental effect on the ability of university staff to flourish.
And while the pandemic has brought a new awareness of the importance of active self-care, there’s also a healthy critique of promoting an individualistic paradigm of personal resilience when structural and organisational change is also necessary.
With all that in mind, we returned to the Wonkhe community survey, which took place over the summer, to dive into the findings on the changes our readers are experiencing and their hopes for change in their organisations, following up this piece from September exploring the Wonkhe community’s hopes for the national policy environment.
Just over 700 people responded to this part of the survey – and while respondents’ professional roles run the gamut of higher education, nearly half identified themselves as holding middle manager roles.
What is changing and what are the impacts?
We asked about the extent to which respondents believe that Covid-19 will prompt “significant and sustained change” in their professional area or area of expertise, and offered a five-point scale as a gauge.
The majority of respondents anticipated at least some significant and sustained change. Of the 716 respondents who answered this part of the survey, two-thirds (65.8 per cent) selected four or five, around a quarter (26.1 per cent) chose three and the remaining 8.1 per cent selected one or two.
When asked why people responded the way they did, a picture emerges of the multiple ways the pandemic has reconfigured priorities and practices, beyond the simple fact of having to shift a great deal of provision online and work remotely.
For example, staff working widening participation and access reflected on the difficulty of continuing their work not only due to being unable to provide face to face interaction but because of the difficulties schools are having in managing learning during the pandemic. One respondent mused on a potential shift in practice to developing embedded “community champions” as a new approach to access and participation work.
Another practitioner expressed concern about the impact of lost learning pre-university on outreach teams: “[They] will be expected to really take responsibility for plugging the learning gap that is growing at the moment, in ways that I don’t think will really align with their Access and Participation Plans. I think that’s going to be a difficult line to tread with schools and colleges, who see HEIs as having unlimited funds and having a duty to support their students in this way.”
The economic impact of Covid-19 on the labour market was a concern for careers professionals, who anticipated having to prepare graduates for a very different world: “I think the future of organisational resourcing, employment security, ways of working and the work-life balance, will change radically as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions and the evolving recession. I also think that social inequalities will widen to a seriously dangerous and socially-dysfunctional extent.”
Likewise the environment for student recruitment and marketing has changed, potentially for good, as a result of changing patterns of media consumption: “Student media consumptions and perceptions have changed massively over lockdown. Therefore the way we communicate to them must [change also].”
On the academic side, the pandemic is promoting the reconsideration of teaching and research in the longer term. One respondent said of teaching, “the development of ‘blended’ learning is no longer an option – it is the foundation.”
Another has been musing on the optimal structure for research collaboration: “Research needs to become more globalised and less compartmentalised around universities/areas. I need and want to support a diverse group of researchers and being face to face is not necessarily what they need from us. Working online allows us to work across time zones, commitments – allows for a more focused approach to development and support.”
Though in many areas respondents recognise that the change described may ultimately bring positive benefits – one respondent even offered an optimistic picture of benefiting from the “opportunity to deliver for a changed world” – this is not true across the board.
Throughout the responses there is a thread of anxiety as people worry about changes to the recognition afforded their professional area and the extent to which it may be vulnerable to loss of status and/or funding, often captured in the expression of anxiety about loss of expertise caused by redundancies and hiring freezes.
These answers highlight the disruptive impacts of significant change, and how it can challenge people’s sense of professional identity. This reality is overlaid on the difficulties of working during Covid-19 and the increased risk of disconnection.
As one respondent explained:
Things like signing off a contract take much longer. Setting up projects takes much longer. Engaging with new people seems quicker at first but when you need something from someone, they’re slower to get it for you. We think it’s because they don’t know you as well without the informal chats that happen around face to face meetings. Not to mention, everyone is so focused on fire fighting Covid that supplementary projects that we would normally work on have been sidelined.
One academic respondent said, “I believe that the response to Covid-19 is going to completely decimate the provisions of Humanities research and teaching in the UK.” Another said, “Being a researcher is a surprisingly liminal role. If face to face is limited (e.g. working off campus indefinitely) we could fade away.”
As the sector continues to wrestle with the implications of Covid-19 it’s helpful to have a glimpse of the personal toll the pandemic is taking, not just from relentless hard work and ongoing uncertainty, but from the longer term changes that have been initiated or accelerated as a result.
A long term shift to flexible working
We asked respondents to tell us what longer term changes to working practices and ways of doing things they hope to see in their organisations as a result of the pandemic.
Full disclosure: a handful said they would be very happy if things returned to normal following the pandemic and if nothing changed at all.
But the vast, vast majority cited the retention of flexible working as their most hoped-for change. It is hard to overstate the scale on which respondents hope to sustain flexible working after the pandemic. Benefits cited included: better work/life balance, improved wellbeing, easier for childcare, time gained back from commuting, greater independence, and environmental sustainability.
This does not mean that respondents would embrace a long-term shift to fully remote working. Many included thoughtful responses about what would be required to support a flexible balance of work from home and attendance at campus including improved IT support and capability, repurposing of estates to accommodate greater use of hot-desking, more explicit design of on-campus time for collaboration and creative purposes, and a more deliberate approach to developing communities to account for flexible working cultures – as well as reduction in the cost of car parking, because tradition demands that somebody always has to bring that up.
And some respondents were lukewarm in their support for flexible working, with one suggesting, “research should be conducted on how this affects productivity and other variables.” Another advocated for, “less presenteeism/more home working and with that potentially a diminution of personal connection that needs to be supplemented by augmented digital means of making voices heard.”
Along with flexible working there were widespread calls for the embedding of flexible learning, and a hope for changes to benefit students’ learning experiences. This was summed up by one respondent as “maintaining the best of the online content for students whilst enhancing with the face to face juicy interaction.”
One library services professional explained:
We are still a campus library and human interaction is key for all of us in the construction of identity and culture at work and as students, I hope the future will allow us to interact again. (Although the handwashing should stay – no-one loves Fresher’s flu!)
Respondents hoped for a range of changes such as assessment reform and diversification, “student-centred timetabling”, the growth of service provision outside the hours of 9-5, greater use of data analytics to track student engagement, more provision of resources for students unable to come to campus, greater student choice in how to engage with learning, more explicit skills support for students, and a rethink of how spaces are used on campus.
It’s notable how central the student experience seems to be to many respondents’ conception of their organisation – evidence, if it were needed, of the extent to which university staff really do incorporate concern for students’ engagement and wellbeing as part of their own professional practice and thinking.
The other strong message coming out of the survey was widespread support for a change of culture in higher education organisations, which can broadly be expressed as a shift from a culture centred on bureaucracy and process, to one centred on people.
On the structure and process theme respondents mentioned their hopes for fewer lengthy meetings, reduced need for paper trails, a digital-first approach to working, quicker decision-making, more delegated authority, and the streamlining of processes. There was a repeated hope for better communication and collaboration between different departments and teams, and a breaking down of siloes.
“Not all decisions need extensive collaboration or debate,” said one respondent, while another hoped their organisation would remove or replace “administrative processes which are done more through tradition than necessity.”
One struck a glum note: “I hope for devolved strategic financial accountability. I expect centralised micro management.” And another took a more positive view: “For a few golden weeks, we were making very quick decisions in open dialogue across teams. I’d like to see that agility and willingness to innovate continue.”
On the people theme, respondents hoped for more kindness, more trust, a stronger community spirit, valuing the contribution of all staff (with cleaning staff mentioned as a particular example), better awareness of mental health and wellbeing, the elimination of precarious contracts, more listening and responding to staff, a more consultative approach from managers, and organisations that follow “human-centred design.”
Along with this shift was a hope for a fresh mindset, implicitly among senior leaders, but potentially across whole institutions. Respondents mentioned the need for a long-term focus in planning, with a greater emphasis on horizon scanning and support for innovation, and more joined-up thinking, drawing on internal expertise to inform decisions. The development of organisational resilience came up, as well as a greater focus on evaluation and impact measurement.
One respondent summed it up succinctly: “Much faster continual development and organisational change. More hybrid working and less 20th century work nonsense.”
These findings remind us that change itself is essentially neutral – it’s all in whether people experience change as energising and empowering, or as demoralising and destabilising – and Covid-19 has strong elements of both.
While our survey represents only a small fraction of the range of views and experiences of the professionals working across higher education, it tells a story of a sector that retains its capacity to imagine a better future.