Reimagining the next normal in HE with Covid-19

By Hayfa Mohdzaini, Senior Researcher, UCEA
26 August 2020

‘Unprecedented’. ‘Challenging times’. ‘New normal’. Just a few of the catchphrases we use daily to describe the profound impact Covid-19 has had on our working lives. I felt it necessary to get it out of my system, so I started a UCEA member briefing with these three words and be done with them. I’m well aware of new, more ‘punchy’ phrases used to describe the school results fiascos since the briefing was concluded, but there are plenty of authors covering that! The briefing summarises how the HE sector responded to workforce issues and the longer-term implications for managing the workforce after the pandemic. 

I set myself a key question: given what we know, how might UK HE working life look like for the 2020-21 academic year and beyond? In trying to answer this I reviewed the four key trends that emerged during the pandemic – agile decision making, blended learning, flexible working and virtual spaces.

Agile decision making

The pandemic has forced HE leaders to make decisions and respond more quickly, collaborating across hierarchies, functions and organisations as necessary. As an example, a hardship fund for students directly impacted by Covid-19 was signed off within 48 hours, a decision that would probably have taken several months pre pandemic. Employee matching services have demonstrated their potential to fluidly rebalance workloads across functions while keeping staff engaged.

HE has shown it can be agile when responding to a crisis and many UCEA members we spoke to have said they hope agile decision making can continue post pandemic. We noticed that it was common for HEIs to hold daily Covid-19 response cross-functional meetings particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. This way of working facilitated a rapid exchange of ideas and regular reviews to enable faster decision making. 

There are agile project management techniques that we can borrow from other industries like IT. Techniques like timeboxing discussion topics to make the best use of meeting time or iterative development to ensure outputs continue to meet evolving needs can support the aspiration for faster decisions while still maintaining proper governance.

Blended learning

Strict social distancing measures have accelerated widespread adoption of blended learning across the sector. Some critics argue that staff are not adequately trained for this new pedagogy and students feel short-changed by reduced in person contact time. But blended learning can meet a longstanding demand for more flexible working from staff and flexible learning from students.

Arizona State University’s president advocated investing in technology six years ago to make education more flexible and accessible, particularly for students from low-income families. It has since seen its student population explode, winning accolades and awards. It was offering three established learning modes for the same courses pre pandemic – traditional on campus, live remote learning and asynchronous online learning – all enhanced with technology. These established modes continue, with the new academic year bringing the option for students to switch modes, despite complicating planning and forecasting. However this strategy may change if Arizona State University sees a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases similar to those reported at several US universities.

Are there other types of learning technologies that HEIs could explore besides learning platforms like moodle and lectures on Zoom, which have gone mainstream during the pandemic? Practical classes that need specialist equipment or close contact with others were largely paused during lockdown and many are only cautiously reopening in the new academic year. 

Could more classes trial immersive technologies to mitigate the risk of a second wave? Imperial College London, for example, trialled fascinating ways to use augmented reality technology such as Microsoft HoloLens for teaching, training and assessing medical students. The University of Glasgow piloted virtual reality 3D laboratory demonstrations for physics students to watch over videoconferencing. With cost and access often barriers to adoption, staff need to think creatively outside the box. The answer doesn’t have to be hi-tech. For example improving orthopaedic training could involve using Cognitive Task Analysis learning tools to extract expert knowledge and communicate them to students more effectively.

With increased longevity and a fast-changing world of requirements the need to learn new skills to remain competitive in the jobs market is clear. Our sector is the key to offering a wider range of high-quality qualifications that are affordable and accessible to part-time students, particularly for mid to late-career professionals and retired people.

Flexible working

Because of Covid-19, a large proportion of the workforce that has rarely or never worked from home have now become regular homeworkers. ONS confirmed that Covid-19 was the main reason for homeworking with the vast majority in administrative, professional and managerial occupations. Much of the HE workforce are in these occupations and can work from home to provide a level of business continuity. 

During lockdown some employees in roles that had been assumed should be done onsite have demonstrated that they can be as productive working from home with flexible hours. Whether this continues to be the norm depends on the student demand for more flexible learning, staff demand for these types of flexible working, management’s willingness to accommodate and of course Covid-19 itself. While flexible working might be seen more complex to manage, there are several potential benefits, from better availability to students outside ‘normal’ hours to attracting a wider staff talent pool.

Virtual social spaces

During lockdown, staff interacted with each other using a range of social media apps. From meetings on Zoom, to sharing ideas on virtual sticky notes over Padlet and posts on staff Facebook groups. Some virtual social spaces are still active several months on, while others have gone dormant. A lot of useful resources have been developed and shared on HEI websites. 

But burning questions remain. To what extent do the virtual spaces that we continue to use replace or exist alongside traditional in-person interactions? And how much physical social space do we really need once social distancing measures are lifted completely?

The pandemic has demonstrated on a massive scale that it is not always necessary to travel and meet in person to discuss and make important decisions. Nor is it always necessary to be around at the same time to interact with each other. 

Managing the workforce after Covid-19

Covid-19 has imposed new ways of working out of necessity rather than choice. It is clear that for these practices to continue, they need to be aligned to our stakeholders’ needs and wants.