Not out of the woods: fulfilling staff potential in a forest of uncertainty - the challenge for 2021

By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
16 December 2020

In my first blog for UCEA in April, as the incoming CEO, I spoke of the sector’s need to adapt quickly to the pandemic and it’s repercussions. The sector has certainly had to learn and respond rapidly and only the uncertainty that hangs over our sector has remained consistent. After this year of unprecedented challenges we now need to turn to the year ahead. But first, let’s begin by reflecting on some sector elements of 2020. 

In the UK the figures speak for themselves. In September the IFS suggested the sector faced a pandemic-related blackhole of £10 billion from losses in income and increased operating costs. But beneath these large numbers are very human stories. Dedicated staff working tirelessly throughout the year to deliver for their students and the wider community: so much time and effort invested in making campuses as safe as possible, in protecting students and colleagues, of finding new ways to deliver blended learning and to keep in contact with staff working remotely – with huge innovation, at such short notice. 

Alongside delivering for students our HEIs have adjusted and adapted to protecting those on campus. Adaptations to ever-changing rules and restrictions throughout the calendar year and providing on-campus testing sites so efficiently. Of course, universities have been at the forefront in helping to defeat the pandemic, from vaccine to facemask development. Equally important, there have been very real innovations in how higher education employers manage, motivate and maintain the mental and physical wellbeing of their staff.

And all these innovations have been made against a backdrop of ongoing financial uncertainty. As November’s UCEA Employers’ Statement points out, the vast majority of our members report ending the 2019-20 academic year with income down on their budgeted figures. For 2020-21, an equally high proportion report a decrease in their budgeted income, with an average reduction of more than 5%. Most HEIs expect to see a substantial fall in their income across the range of their activities, from tuition fees to student accommodation, from commercial activity to research funding. All of this is of course taking place in an extremely challenging post Brexit world.

Institutions have had to make difficult decisions in order to mitigate the impact of this drop in income. Most HEIs have used ‘reserves’ to keep afloat and nearly all have reduced capital spending to meet current funding requirements. Feedback from HEIs has been consistent about the highly unstable situation facing the sector and it is important to emphasise that these spending decisions are being made against a backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty. 

Investing in the sector’s workforce, when conditions allow, is a crucial priority for HEIs. The fact that they have not been able to invest nearly as much as they would wish to this year is a matter of deep regret for UCEA’s members. But no one could have anticipated the effects of this pandemic, coupled with all other financial challenges, from pensions provisions to the Brexit impacts.

Given the uncertainty which continues to face the sector, UCEA was unable to offer an uplift in pay for the 2020-21 academic term. That does not mean that UCEA’s members do not recognise and appreciate the hard work of staff throughout the sector from the moment the pandemic hit. I know from my discussions within the sector that HEIs are genuinely grateful for the efforts of all of their staff who have met the variety of challenges created by the pandemic. 

How then, in times of financial uncertainty do we address and recognise the efforts of the workforce? Just because the pay spine is frozen, that hasn’t meant that all the important work on reward and motivation is put on ice too. 

How do we continue to enhance the employee experience in these difficult times? This year has seen numerous examples from across the sector which highlight exemplary practice in managing and supporting colleagues virtually, supporting staff to develop their skills and confidence, helping people to remain connected and engaged with colleagues and promoting physical activity and mental wellbeing. 

And, while UCEA hasn’t been able to offer a pay uplift in this academic year, we have offered to work with sector unions on the important issues of HEIs’ employment practices, workload, the gender and ethnicity pay gaps and improving career development throughout the sector. Tackling these important issues remains vital. 

HEIs are essential to providing opportunities for people of all backgrounds, driving social mobility and improving life chances and the quality of life through their social and cultural impact. Every single person who works in our institutions is essential to that mission. We have been through a tough year and clearly we are not out of the woods yet. The future, though, has to be one in which we are able to continue focusing on fulfilling the potential of all those who work in higher education, as well as all who study within it.

I have said before that UCEA aspires to a genuine collaboration with sector unions so that we have the confidence of our workforce in addressing the demands of the present, as well as in adapting for the future. My hope for to 2021 is that we can work together to make this aspiration a reality. I hope that all in our sector get to recharge over the well-deserved Christmas break so that we can face the new challenges in the new year.