University estates teams were some of the real heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic

University estates teams worked hard and long to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. AUDE chief executive Jane White wants them to get the respect they deserve

Jane White is Executive Director of AUDE

Throughout November the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE) is going to be focusing attention on some of the unsung heroes at our universities during the pandemic.

Our #AUDECovidHeroes campaign highlights amazing work from estates and facilities colleagues, and we are asking everyone across the sector to find a way to join in and thank the people that have kept our universities open during Covid.

We want to acknowledge and celebrate the frontline estates and facilities colleagues who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to keep their universities open and staff and students safe during the pandemic.

They are often the behind-the-scenes staff that don’t always get the public recognition they deserve. But during this extraordinarily challenging period they have risen to new heights of professionalism, determination, and sheer hard work, and they are based in every estates and facilities team in every university. They are our #AudeCovidHeroes.

“At the start of the crisis we said very clearly that there are two priorities for this year. One is to keep everyone safe and two is to deliver the best educational experience we can for our students. The estates team bore the brunt of keeping everyone safe,” said Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“There was an incredible spirit of volunteerism. And everybody helped each other. We achieved huge things with that spirit. I couldn’t be more grateful to them. Bruno and Sylvia [who feature in the campaign] are great examples and there are many many others who were there throughout. They were the constant. They were the ones who kept universities open and functioning. And we all owe them a huge debt.”

Proud of our colleagues

We’ll be sharing the stories of cleaners and security officers, porters and space planners, housekeepers, student support staff, catering workers and more. These colleagues have been vital to keeping our universities open, and therefore vital to the higher education sector’s role in the national pandemic response.

We’ll be hearing from the cleaning team at De Montfort University, who volunteered at their local hospital to make sure they understood the most rigorous NHS anti-Covid cleaning practice that they could then bring back to the university.

We’ll hear from security staff at Lancaster University, tasked with supporting more than 1700 students that remained on campus during the first national lockdown. From receptionists at the LSE who volunteered to learn new roles in the university library so it could remain open.

From space planners and porters at Strathclyde working hundreds of extra hours to make sure room layouts met the ever-changing advice on social distancing. And from the housekeeping team at Northampton, making sure unused student rooms were available for those members of the wider community that needed them – including key workers unable to return to the family home because of fear of the virus, and the highly Covid-vulnerable local rough sleeper community.

We are sharing these stories because we are just so proud of the work done by so many people working on the HE estate during Covid-time, and we want to recognise those immense personal efforts. Equivalent stories happened at every single university – and we hope you’ll help us uncover and share them as well. And it isn’t just AUDE that is proud and grateful: it is our vice chancellors, our trustees, our directors and our academic communities too.

Vote of thanks

The message of gratitude is echoed across higher education. When AUDE spoke to estates directors back at our spring conference in April this year, there was a widespread call for us to galvanise a sector-wide vote of thanks to estates and facilities teams, and that’s what we are now doing.

“Our research has been vital for the UK’s response to the pandemic. And our estates teams have been critical in making (our universities) a safe place,” says Andy Schofield, vice chancellor of Lancaster University. “They are the bedrock of pretty much everything that takes place. So many examples from so many different people of people going above and beyond. I would just like to thank everybody for all that they’ve done.”

These colleagues often didn’t and frequently won’t have the option to work from home, no matter how far your university moves towards hybrid working as a long-term result of the pandemic. There’s an issue of fairness there which we hope our HR teams and university leaders will want to solve.

But now is the time for a straightforward and powerful thank you, from all of us. The message of our campaign is summed up by Stella Matko, Director of Estates at the University of Strathclyde: “The workload increased exponentially. There was a huge team effort by everybody in estates services. And I’m really proud of the way they all rallied. And every single one of them quite frankly deserves a commendation for the really hard work and effort they put into pulling together a really massive team effort.”

If you agree with that sentiment, please let estates colleagues know – at every university. In person. Or online, using the #AUDECovidHeroes hashtag. We’ll be sharing further information throughout November. Who are the estates Covid Heroes at your university? Let us know on Twitter and LinkedIn via @AUDE_news. Join in.

Click here to view the videos and case studies of the estates teams celebrated in this article on AUDE’s website.

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