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Joint effort

Image: UCEA

Employers and unions must work together to protect higher education, writes Raj Jethwa

The next 12 months will be a period of challenge but perhaps also a period of positive adjustment. In either scenario, the support of—and for—the higher education workforce will be crucial. Only time will tell whether we are living through a great upheaval, a great transformation or something more manageable than either of those things.

Whichever turns out to be closer to the truth, the need to manage, support and maintain the wellbeing of higher education staff will be fundamental.

In April, I wrote about how university employers were adapting to support their staff through the pandemic. While the focus has understandably been on how universities are responding to the needs of students, their response to the significant staffing challenges caused by Covid-19 also deserves recognition. In the short time since I joined the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, I have continually been impressed by the flexibility and commitment that higher education staff have shown, and by the way university HR teams, among others, have adapted to new ways of working and of motivating staff.

Ucea is also working with institutions to address the complex range of workforce challenges that have emerged over the past few months, including how to give staff the confidence they need to feel safe returning to the workplace.

A higher education institution is a complex and varied workplace that, in addition to lecture theatres and seminar rooms, can include offices, laboratories, catering, retail and hospitality facilities—often over several sites. Keeping up with government guidance has been a significant challenge.

Financial uncertainty

A concern that requires careful consideration is how, in the new climate, institutions can effectively assess risk. Specific groups of the population have been identified as particularly vulnerable and the evolving evidence base on Covid-19 may yet identify other sections of the community at risk. Higher education institutions are working hard to understand how they can support and protect their staff as we begin to learn more about the pandemic.

This direct and immediate workforce challenge will have to be addressed against the backdrop of an extremely precarious financial position. In the past decade, the contribution of tuition fees to the income of higher education institutions has grown from less than a third to nearly a half.

This is undoubtedly the area of greatest financial uncertainty as universities approach the 2020-21 academic year. The value of UK student fees has been eroded in real terms since 2012-13, before we even factor in the higher predicted level of deferrals or the likely reduction in higher-value international student numbers.

Compared to industry, where staffing costs can range between 10 and 50 per cent of all expenditure, in higher education they account for almost 60 per cent, as a recent Ucea seminar revealed. Higher education is also less prepared to meet a financial crisis, with the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s liquidity measure showing a drastic fall in the number of days the sector’s available cash balances will last. The scale of the problem is such that many institutions face high levels of financial uncertainty.

Higher education has a great mission, great achievements and great potential, but it also faces great challenges. It is a sector of diversity—in terms of institutions, in terms of gender (women make up less than half of academic posts but nearly two-thirds of non-academic staff) and in terms of ethnicity (nearly a quarter of academics are from ethnic minority backgrounds, yet few hold the most senior posts).

Ending the strikes

When I joined Ucea as chief executive in early 2020, it was ‘simply’ a stimulating role in a new sector with a broad range of substantial challenges. Chief among them was working with others to bring a conclusion to a high-profile dispute that had seen more than 20 days lost to strike action.

Ucea’s final and extensive proposals followed more than a year of discussions to address the challenges relating to casual employment, workload pressures, mental wellbeing and the gender and ethnicity pay gaps. Many of these issues have become more prominent since Covid-19. Ucea and its employers are committed to constructive dialogue with unions on the workforce and the financial challenges universities face. Fundamental to that dialogue is a recognition that we all need to work together to protect higher education.

The financial pressures created by Covid-19 will accentuate changes that higher education was already beginning to explore. The move to online learning may be temporary in some cases, but it may arguably point the way to the future of provision in many others.

This will have workforce implications that need to be identified and understood. Our conversations with members have also revealed how many are already starting to think about the way in which support for staff wellbeing might evolve as we emerge from the pandemic.

As Ucea’s chief executive, my priority is to support our member institutions so that they can manage through the workforce challenges the pandemic has created, to give them certainty over the workforce element of their finances and to provide the advice they need to manage and support their staff. Equally, we want to work with unions so that, as far as possible, we have genuine collaboration and the confidence of the workforce both in addressing current demands and in helping higher education to adapt for the future.

Raj Jethwa is chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.