Universities across the UK are springing into action to help with national, regional and local efforts to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on our communities. The response of our institutions, our staff and students has been, frankly, inspiring to see. Considering everything else we’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks, this is nothing short of astonishing.

This isn’t just the sector patting itself on the back with platitudes. The way that universities have accelerated into support mode has been remarked upon by national and local politicians, our partners in the NHS and local councils, the media and wider public.

While the situation we face as a nation and a sector is undoubtedly severe, this a significant moment for universities. The commitments we make to our staff, our students, to learning, to the pursuit of knowledge and its application in the real world are going to be tested like never before. But at the same time these tests will provide us with a sense of purpose stronger than any moment I can remember during my time in HE.

However, if we are to meet the challenge of helping our partners tackle the pandemic and its myriad impacts, we will need to continue to provide effective, imaginative, sustainable and, ultimately, pragmatic support.

We are all building the ship as we sail it through a storm – so pace is important, but so is making sure things are done effectively. In short, don’t delay giving your £500k testing robot to support the national effort, but do make sure that it’s packed up properly, comes with the right instructions and at some point, you get a receipt!

To that end, based on what we at the University of Nottingham have been doing over the last ten days (which at time have felt like like months), here are ten fairly practical things that universities looking to help might want to consider in developing their approach.

Get organised, get coordinated

We love a good committee structure, but we also love not really being told what to do. Within many of our institutions, there is sometimes a sense of resistance to the very concept of coordination, which is in many cases entirely understandable.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really an approach that is going to work here. Not least, because so many of our fantastic academics, students and staff have already lept into the fray. The horse has very much left the stable.

On Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast last week, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation Torsten Bell talked about his experience of being in the Treasury during the financial crisis. He said, wherever possible, in a crisis, try to avoid designing entirely new mechanisms where you can adapt existing ones.

Therefore, in the spirit of this advice, at Nottingham we’ve quickly adapted a structured approach to the coordination of this programme based on the Incident Management Team approach we developed for Brexit.

  • We’ve established key contacts in faculties and schools (starting with Medicine and Health Sciences, but soon expanding into other areas).
  • We’ve identified institutional leads in central professional services to develop the policies, guidance and mechanisms required.
  • We’ve adapted our priority stakeholder organisation relationship management programme, reaching out to key local partners to ensure we’re being demand-led.
  • We also have ‘sprint-teams’ in place to deal with urgent issues – and a PVC-chaired oversight group that meets daily to make decisions.
  • Finally, a single mailbox (politicalaffairs@nottingham.ac.uk) is now in use to act as a point of referral and advice, helping us keep an eye on what’s going on – which is absolutely loads.

Steer your enthusiasm

You need to catch-up to your frontrunners, combine similar initiatives, reduce duplication and (gently) discourage bad ideas from taking up too much of your, or your partners’ time. Much of this early work will be incredibly useful, but ultimately for it to be effective, responsible and sustainable – you will probably need to provide a framework to support it. Well-meaning is great. Meaningful is better.

One example at Nottingham (and many other universities) was our superb MedSoc student society mustering 600 student volunteers and then leafleting the whole of our local teaching hospital. However, government policy on final year medics and nurses has developed rapidly, with the launch of the national volunteers programme announced last week.

To support our local partners in managing the offer of help, we’ve worked with MedSoc to bring that offer in line with these bigger initiatives, as well as ensuring we are mindful of our responsibilities to our students – and the need for them to complete their studies.

It is genuinely awe-inspiring to see academic communities mobilise at full speed, with their full attention dedicated to working together to solve the problems we’re facing. If we as universities only do one thing, it should be to try to help government and local partners understand how best to access this immense resource of ingenuity.

Define your offer, structure your thinking

We’ve identified four main areas where the university could support the national effort to tackle the virus and support our communities locally:

  1. Through our research, equipment and research-facilities
  2. Through our other spaces, teaching facilities and accommodation
  3. Through the efforts of our staff, be they clinicians, researchers, volunteers or the staff who will help keep buildings open, clean and safe
  4. Through the efforts of our students, not just those studying for health-related degrees, but all those who are already helping-out in their local communities across Nottingham

Structuring our offer has been helpful in two ways. First, it has helped our own organisation – for example, each of the below workstreams has lead contacts for both professional services and within faculties as well as dedicated project management support. Second, it’s helped our partners very quickly identify how we can bring resources to bear on their challenges.

Proactively manage your partner relationships

We have very quickly increased capacity in our Global and Political Affairs unit to bring in relationship managers to support a proactive, structured approach to liaising with our key local partners. We wrote to their chief executives at the outset, setting out our offer and asked them to nominate a single point of contact. Regular calls between our respective leads and a prioritisation system have led to a clearer sense of what is already going on, allowed us to deal with urgent issues and also to stop things that aren’t helpful.

Bandwidth and prioritisation

To adapt a phrase coined by our vice chancellor Shearer West, from her inaugural lecture, “just because we have the capacity to do anything, it doesn’t mean we should try and do everything”.

Be aware of the bandwidth of your colleagues – both departments and individuals, who are under extraordinary professional and personal pressure at this time. Be aware that your partners will also all be going through this upheaval and may appreciate your support in triaging some of the many offers of support they are getting.

We now have a maxim of “less haste, more speed” – because it might be better to spend more time getting that accommodation offer to hundreds of NHS workers properly developed and communicated than it is to try and set up a multitude of smaller schemes. The same goes for the development of contracts and guidance to support staff secondments.

Government is using the phrase “trying to avoid rate-limiting factors” to describe their scaling-up of national testing. This is helpful when considering how much time you give to any one project – ask those involved to assess how likely it is to make a difference, both at scale and in time.

Keep an eye on the policy weather

Trying to get your final year nurses and medics into your local hospital? Setting up a volunteering scheme to help the NHS? Well, the government has recently moved on both of these. Your local council may also have done the same.

If you have academics involved in these discussions nationally or locally (check out your Local Resilience Forum or contact your Integrated Care System lead) – then talk to them about things so you don’t spend ages doing something that then becomes superseded. You can get updates via UUK at this email and other sources like the Wonkhe Daily.

Be strategic, be sustainable, be smart, be safe, be sensible

One of the five principles that govern our programme of work is Protection – of our staff, students and of the university’s position (proper contracts and agreements; inventories; insurance etc).

It’s great if you’re able to offer halls of residence to local NHS staff or for patients being moved out of hospital, but you must consider the impact on those staff running those facilities, cleaning, securing and catering for those people. Equally, if these people will need PPE to keep those facilities open it’s probably not hugely sensible to have given it all to local partners without considering this.

Also, if you are donating PPE or consumables, please do check with someone in your partner’s organisation that it’s the right type. NHS staff are only trained to use certain types of protective equipment, so rushing the wrong model of mask out the door isn’t going to help anyone. Become best friends with your institution’s leads for health and safety, estates, HR and legal. These colleagues will help you develop solutions that don’t have to be undone later – or jeopardise the safety of your staff and partners.

Don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re doing.

It is not cycnical nor self-serving to ask your comms and marketing teams to tell the stories of those making this contribution. Your staff, students and alumni are proud of what you’re doing. Your partners learn more about how you can help them. People living near your universities feel assured that their big civic institutions are working together.

Chris Skidmore MP (very much acting as a roving emeritus universities minister at the moment) has got the hashtag #UniSupport going. We have used #WeAreUoN to highlight positive stories across our institution and #UnisForNottingham to highlight joint work with NTU, which builds on our #TrulyCivic Universities for Nottingham collaboration launched in January. As ever, for inspiration on social media do check out Glasgow’s annoyingly good #TeamUofG work.

Remember, they’re making this up as they go along too

When responding to an urgent call from Number 10 last week to provide Thermo Fisher 7500 PCR machines we have also been working with government on helping streamline their efforts to get the best out of the sector, in the shortest amount of time, causing the smallest amount of churn possible. For the national testing effort, which is now being coordinated by the Medical Discovery Catapult, there is a single email address (covidtestingtriage@dhsc.gov.uk) from which requests for support will emerge and offers should be sent.

The directors of the various regional universities groups (Midlands Innovation, Midlands Enterprise, N8, GW4, Yorkshire Unis, Eastern Arc) are now linked up to improve the cascade to individual institutions. Many of these regional university associations started out as kit-sharing collaboratives, so there’s a lot of valuable knowledge (and fantastic people) within their secretariats and their contacts.

Use the sector’s networks

Finally, our work and that from many other universities across the sector has helped inform work being done by government (a single online portal for requests and offers is being set-up now) and Universities UK to try and create a number of resources around this agenda. This will include logging, co-ordinating and disseminating government requests, and already includes a fantastic UUK MS Teams site for the sector to share best practice, good stories and compare notes. The University of Nottingham will be hosting all our documentation, strategies, guidance etc on there – and we’ve already learnt lots from what others are doing. To get access to the portal there’s a dedicated UUK Covid-19 email.

One response to “#UniSupport: ten things to consider in working with partners

  1. We’re very much in support of this effort and we’re monitoring the actions the 12 member HEIs of Yorkshire Universities are taking in response to Covid-19, we’re doing this in collaboration with UUK. It’s very much an iterative process but if you want to find out more you can have a look here, we try to update it on a daily basis: https://docs.google.com/document/d/19DBcWjhKfRl3HsKHerBdBl9LTXVA_q0JixWjsBoK2N4/edit#

    Equally if we missed something, need further info please get in touch!

Leave a Reply