It would be a massive understatement to say that the Covid-19 crisis has thrown some curveballs at the university sector. But there are opportunities for higher education (HE) establishments as we move towards a post-pandemic era. For the 20 November Better Managers Briefing I spoke to Steve Galliford, director of postgraduate studies at Coventry University, and Jane Turner OBE, pro vice chancellor at Teesside University.
The power of collaboration
At both universities, the focus has been on pivoting online learning to work for students and to support their staff working remotely – all while prioritising the health and safety of the university community and making sense of the directions from government.
Steve and Jane agree that the positive power of connections and partnership has come into its own, whether it’s with other universities, city councils or regional bodies. “That positivity and close working relationship on a practical level has been really valuable and that's a two-way relationship,” Steve says, but follows up by saying that the lack of clarity and consistency in some areas from government has been less positive. “Clearly there's no rulebook for this, but the guidance has been confusing at times and often changes with very short notice.”
Jane urges a more strategic response for young people: “A lot of apprentices have lost their jobs. It's so important that we treat our people with respect and dignity right now.”
Retaining the student experience
In the face of so many unknowns, these HE leaders agree that retaining the best student experience must be a priority. “All of our students have continued to study. We've maintained our standards,” Steve says. He acknowledges that investments in technology have helped them weather the storm.
The value of more interactive styles of learning is a golden opportunity, Steve says. “We made a commitment when we came out of the first lockdown that we would give our students a minimum of five hours teaching face-to-face if they wanted it,” he explains, adding that this time must be used effectively to get the most out of it.
This isn’t about the death of the lecture, Steve says, believing that a more blended approach will continue long term. “What we should be doing is a much more active learning heutagogy-based approach whereby students listen to their own learning,” he explains. Coventry’s analysis shows that around 85% of Coventry’s students prefer to stay on campus, even in a limited sense. “That's a resounding thumbs up to what we're trying to do,” he says.
“This has given a massive opportunity to disrupt in a really positive way,and that constant discussion around value for money for our students, and some really innovative opportunities for us to do something really creative in how we engage students in that learning experience,” Jane adds.
Remote working challenges
Remote working has brought challenges in terms of supporting staff, but it’s more than paid off – and will likely be a lasting legacy, Steve says: “We're learning the benefits of remote working to reduce travel time, and how that can be usefully combined with some face-to-face contact.”
Jane believes that employee engagement has been vital to the success of remote working. Her institution uses communications and surveys to check on how staff are doing. “There haven’t been any hysterical moments,” Jane says, however, the shift in working patterns combined with a more blended approach to teaching is prompting questions about how to maximise the space for students and how to use our real estate in a different way.
Coping with pressure
Both universities have placed a large emphasis on mental health against a backdrop of huge demand among students for mental health and counselling support. Technology has a role to play; Coventry has Connections Matter, a platform for all sorts of support for mental health, general wellbeing and social activities, particularly for students.
The pressure on staff has been immense. “The quality of leadership is very transparent during a crisis,” Jane says, believing that trust and showing vulnerability are key facets. “Otherwise, your team feels immense pressure to seem to be coping. As leaders, we feel pressure to be invincible and strong all the time and that's not being human.”
The extra pressure is bringing people together in ways not seen before, and galvanizing a more human kind of management and leadership, Jane believes: “People are looking after each other, reaching out to help each other and just being human through all of this.”
Throwing a spotlight on divides
The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the digital divide and the complexities that commuter students face, Jane says. “Many have had no physical space to study at home, or they've had to share the learning technology with other members of the household being home-schooled,” she explains, adding that unfortunately “some [students] had to defer as a result.”
As the trends towards more blended forms of learning and remote working look set to continue, Steve believes greater thought needs to be put into how we address the digital divide. “We have a policy and we do what we can for our students. More broadly, that needs to come much higher up the agenda,” Steve urges.
Further to this, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on young people aged 16 to 25 – particularly women – is cause for concern. “Women aged under 25 are basically being frozen out of the jobs market,” Jane warns.
As the gender champion at Teesside, Jane has worked with partners to give a platform and a voice for women in the region. “There are support mechanisms out there, but young women who are already disadvantaged have been hit even more so.” The onus is on universities to take a strategic lead on the issue, she says.
You may have all the technological solutions in the world, but don’t underestimate the importance of being visible and making time to speak to people, Steve urges. “As a leader and a senior manager, it's made me realise that informal time is really valuable and keeps productivity and morale high. Time spent chatting to people is rarely wasted – that's the key for me.”
Despite the challenges thrown at us by the pandemic, Jane is optimistic for the future and urges others to be so too, advising us to “focus on the positives of what the future holds for us.”
We also have a mental health and wellbeing hub, which helps anyone going through a difficult time with first-hand experiences and useful resources.
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