The new year’s challenges can be met, working together

By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
10 January 2022

In 2020 and still relatively new in my role at UCEA, I wrote that only time would tell whether we were living through a great upheaval, a great transformation or something more manageable and short-term. It wasn’t the latter. Since then, there has been much debate surrounding the ‘new normal’ and the timeline of that ‘new normal’. What is undebatable is that the last couple of years have been anything but typical for our sector. 

HE institutions have worked tirelessly to provide guidance and support the wellbeing of HE staff who, in turn, have reciprocated with their hard work and by adapting to the consistent challenges and inconsistent rule changes. This has, in turn, developed new approaches to recognition and resulted in many impressive developments in the employee experience. In fact, many HE institutions’ aspirations to achieve even more in this space were only restricted by the uncertainty and pressures of the pandemic. 

My hope is that, after two years of working hard to cope with the pandemic, 2022 will be the year which allows the sectors’ employers to begin to devote more precious time to examining longer term workforce and reward issues.  

That may sound fairly optimistic given that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, never mind an industrial dispute over last year’s pay uplift and, for many employers, over the changes needed to keep USS attractive and affordable. As a reminder of where we stand in relation to trade union disputes and decisions, please visit Union disputes 2021-22.

There is no doubt that last year was another exceptionally difficult year for our sector. The uncertainty of the first year of the pandemic was translated into clear pressures for most HE institutions, with a very mixed picture across the sector. What often went unnoticed and, given the current dispute over pay and conditions, will be seen as surprising by many was that UCEA and the trade unions worked well together on some other equally important matters. These included covid testing, vaccination and supporting a safe return to campus

Just as importantly, there were countless cases of joint working across institutions to support students and staff. UCEA’s Managing Staff Return to Campus guidance contains a number of case studies which all focus on working with staff, and trade union branches, to achieve excellent examples of adaptation and delivery for the benefit of employers, staff and students. But these case studies are just the tip of the iceberg of UCEA’s 175 members’ hard work. Staff should feel proud of the fundamental role they have played in supporting students, delivering education and research, maintaining safe environments, and mitigating the impacts of Covid-19. 

Much of this was often delivered through remote or hybrid working. For many, the impact of remote working led to a renewed appreciation of the importance of maintaining social connectedness. For others, particularly those with caring responsibilities, there was some benefit from reduced travelling and more flexible working patterns. Ensuring a good understanding of the needs and expectations of students, as well as boundaries and expectations to support work-life balance, are important elements of how HEIs are now looking at the future of delivery and work organisation. Also important are good internal communications to capture the wider employee voice and trade union engagement. There is no doubt that these approaches will continue to feature in discussions between employers and staff over the course of 2022.

Alongside this, UCEA is determined to provide greater support to institutions to further enhance the employee experience as well as developing holistic approaches to reward. Following the extensive initial discussions across our sector, we will also move into the next phase of UCEA’s National Conversation on the future of collective pay bargaining. Backed by a supportive Board and excellent team for this, I am looking forward to deepening our understanding of what institutions really value about our bargaining arrangements. Equally important will be identifying what possibilities for improvement they want to explore. 

I also look forward to enhancing our relationships with the trade unions based on trust and mutual respect. There will be hurdles to overcome in achieving this last aim. Not least of these will be how we manage to put the recent industrial action behind us and move on as a sector in support of our students, all of our staff and our wider communities.