Covid-19 and the sector’s unprecedented workforce issues
By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
9 April 2020
Our sector, like all the world, continues to carefully contemplate unrivalled challenges and take vital and considerable actions to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
Old world sector challenges
The challenges we faced in the ‘not-so-good’ old days were of course already significant. As UCEA’s new Chief Executive I could never have imagined seeing this resilient sector face as much as it has in recent months. It’s easy to forget that UCEA and its employers have worked tirelessly to end last year’s dispute with UCU. UCEA’s final and extensive proposals followed more than a year of discussions and dispute relating to the 2019-20 pay talks and focus on the casual employment, workload/ mental health and gender pay gaps/ ethnicity pay with the new positive proposals addressing these important issues.
Many universities were struggling financially prior to the outbreak, but the likelihood now is that very few will escape the significant budgetary pressures resulting from the pandemic. However, despite those pressures, UCEA and its members remain committed to the principles set out in those proposals. The 1.8% pay uplift was at the limit of what was sustainable for the sector before Covid-19. But the uplift will remain in place despite the sector-wide financial repercussions of the pandemic and monumental uncertainties for all universities which have intensified significantly.
The 2020-21 pay round (due to start in late March) has of course been delayed as a result of Covid-19. Employers and trade unions must now work together at all levels to help the sector navigate the many complex staffing issues created by the pandemic.
Staffing and financial issues
The sector is of course no different when it comes to bearing the brunt of the pandemic, as made clear in recent bad-news headlines, from University finance concerns amid rising deficits and collapse in overseas student numbers to Universities forced to cut costs and staff.
Despite these unprecedented times our universities are responding to the many significant challenges caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The flexibility and commitment of staff is unquestionable, with HR professionals key to adapting to new ways of working and motivating staff. At sector level UCEA staff are working tirelessly to try and support our 169 member organisations through the myriad of current staffing challenges and workforce issues.
Sifting through the confusion and concerns relating to job retention issues in HE within a Covid-19 context is one example of this. Top of the list is how the Job Retention Scheme applies to our sector. UCEA has sought clarification from Government and commissioned comprehensive legal advice, and we are regularly updating our member FAQs as we receive more details. More broadly, we have published a joint HE statement with four trade unions setting out key considerations for ensuring the health and safety of the workforce during the pandemic.
UCEA is also gathering and sharing good examples with members of how universities are managing the workforce in response to the Covid-19 social distancing measures, through the ER network, member meetings and content on our website. In an upcoming members’ briefing paper we will review economic and labour market forecasts, lessons learnt from past crises and what that means for HE employers in the current context. We will also examine the issues thrown up by Covid-19 in terms of employment policy and practice and use this for our national representations on behalf of the sector.
Keeping staff engaged, from voluntary redeployment to training and volunteering
Our first case study examines how one of our member universities has been keeping staff engaged and occupied during the weeks leading up to the lockdown through voluntary redeployment, training and volunteering. We note the range of early responses at other universities. For example, communicating an ever-expanding FAQs, supporting work-life balance by providing paid special leave for carers, and encouraging staff wellbeing by offering free online gym classes and extending Easter closure days.
Adapting for the future, whatever and whenever that may be
As UCEA’s CEO I am determined to help this sector work together to get through this pandemic. Our sector, as with our society more widely, will be a different place when we get through this period. We will all need to continue to innovate to ensure the sector is able to deliver in the new world. For now, at UCEA we will be bringing HR leaders and practitioners in the sector together to discuss and develop new approaches. During this dramatic time we are having to learn and respond rapidly, but UCEA will remain in place, adapting but continuing to be here to support our members through this period and to whatever lies ahead.
This blog was also published by WonkHE as Covid-19 and the sector’s workforce