UK Universities response to COVID 19

Article By
James Cumming
James Cumming
Posted On3rd February 2021
Posted On3rd February 2021

The last year has been a rollercoaster of emotions for most of us.  COVID-19 has changed our personal and professional lives in a whole host of ways. 86% of people now working from home do so because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  But the pandemic has not only changed the approach to working from home, it has also had many other knock-on implications that have changed our working environment. No more so than the education sector and in particular in universities. So what has been universities response to Covid 19? We spoke to HR directors at some of the leading universities in the UK to find out how they have adapted – and continue to do so – in light of the pandemic.

There are many areas that have been affected at UK universities including switching to home working and the challenges faced around that, all kinds of financial strains, IT and cybersecurity, the student experience, and the organisation of mass COVID testing for students, to name a few.

Magi Hoppitt, Chief People Officer at Coventry University highlighted some of the challenges they have faced over the past 10 months including the response to COVID, the impact of the changing external environment on finances, future planning, and staff and student welfare. COVID-19 has had a number of wider implications including, “an increased focus on staff and student safety, remote working, environmental issues to support returning to campus, development of blended learning, increased workload across the organisation, reduced opportunities for collaboration and innovation and changing government requirements”.

Richard Billingham, Executive Director of HR and OD at Aston University said, “there is a myriad of challenges that we are facing now that we didn’t even see coming 12 months ago. Some are a direct result of coronavirus and some are trends that have been significantly accelerated during the past 10 months. Most obviously, looking outwards are the challenges of the market presented by the impact of Covid. In November 2019, we had a relatively stable financial picture and were able to plan with a degree of certainty to develop new markets and consolidate in areas of strength. 12 months on all those assumptions have had to be challenged and the degree of certainty has diminished significantly.”

Richard also went on to highlight key issues around staff, digital challenges, workplace challenges, and wider societal change:

  •  “Resilience of staff: We have deployed volumes of advice and guidance around mental health and wellbeing but everyone’s starting place is very different. Mental health and wellbeing of employees remains a significant challenge and there is a more fundamental need to have a conversation about what the organisation’s responsibility is for individual’s wellbeing beyond job design, workplace design and management style and processes.
  • Digital – the acceleration of digital by default, the pace of adoption of digital tools and disruption to fundamental conceptions about service delivery and even what constitutes a University’s front door have all presented challenges and will continue to do so. The pace of adoption of digital tools, e.g. MS Teams, digital teaching and learning, etc, has been phenomenal and for me is a case study in change. Effectively being forced to adopt these tools and learn initially through trial and error has rapidly introduced new ways of working demonstrating what I have learnt through many previous change and transformation programmes that people act into a new way of thinking, they don’t think into a new way of acting.
  • Workplace: Some institutions are encouraging or mandating the return of all staff but from my perspective pandora’s box has been opened and we will be missing an enormous opportunity if we simply try to close the lid and return to a pre-March 2020 way of working. In surveying staff, a consistent message coming through loud and clear is that people like the flexibility that remote working has offered, the fact that it enables them to maximise time spent with their families and that in many cases they have been more productive. Sure, there are also many issues to overcome such as effective collaboration, coordination of people and communication but the future of work is certainly a hybrid approach where many people work in spaces that suit the nature of the work they are doing at any one time. This will mean people dividing their time between home and office whereby the balance varies according to the nature of roles.
  • Societal change – during the pandemic and increasingly, as the economic fallout increases, there have been some significant societal disruptions that have required universities to challenge themselves. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement have impacted all universities and required leadership teams to look hard and honestly at themselves, their practices and the staff and student communities they serve. It feels like this, finally, is a shift in how we work to truly address inclusion and ensure diversity is fundamental to how we operate as opposed to a set of criteria that need to be seen to be done.

Dr Sally Jackson, Chief People Officer at Sheffield Hallam University agrees with the points made. She said, “The COVID-19 crisis produced two responses in the university. The first was to put in place an effective crisis management structure to enable incident management over the immediate to short term. This was based on a networked-teams approach, including strong cross-professional and cross-functional working and very regularly incident management meetings at both ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ level. We have deployed project managers and business analysts into many of the workstreams to ensure timely delivery. In managing the crisis, we have worked in close partnership with the other major organisations in the city, including the hospitals and public health team.

The second response was to put in place a ‘Future Strategy Group’ which worked in an agile way, meeting weekly from April to September 2020, to drive the analysis, commission work, and produce the horizon scanning and forward-thinking needed to re-set the strategic priorities for the next 2 -3 years. Through the associated delivery programme structure, we will ensure joined-up, timely and coherent organisational adaption and development.”


Richard’s big challenge at Aston University has been to “support the changes brought about by lockdown and subsequent restrictions while being subject to them. HR and OD delivery pivoted to online delivery literally overnight and have since been developing a process to enable them to better be completed online. For instance, we have moved from a physical reception to online bookings and begun implementation of a service desk solution. “

Transitioning to remote working has been a huge challenge for many businesses and was the case for Magi Hoppitt at Coventry University. “Our response included increased cross-organisational working and emergency planning, regular, increased communication, a focus on staff wellbeing and significant policy development to adapt to the changing requirements. Being remote brings about so many issues that need dealing with – and the physical distance within teams causes extra strain.”

Most agree it would have been difficult to have anticipated the scale or duration of the crisis back in March, it was completely unprecedented, so you do have to learn as you go. “With hindsight we would have taken longer to think things through as we undertook a number of activities/initiatives that we had to either redo or were wasted effort due to government changes – but we couldn’t have known that at the time.” Magi Hoppitt

“In terms of what we would do differently I will say ‘nothing’. The reason for saying this is not that we’ve done everything perfectly, but what we have done well is learn, iterate fast and be agile. This period of time has presented a range of adaptive challenges where we haven’t been able to pull ready-made solutions off a shelf. Instead, we have had to work collaboratively, within and outside HR, to understand what is happening and move quickly to implement solutions while being sufficiently fleet-of-foot to learn and change direction based on the learning.” Richard Billingham.

The general consensus from all universities is that timely and clear government decisions making would have made the crisis management easier. IT and infrastructure are also a big concern to give time to plan and transfer to online, remote working.

At Sheffield Hallam, the good resilience from IT infrastructure made the transition to remote working, teaching, and learning much easier than it could have been. Sally Jackson,If we had been slightly further ahead with our rollout of laptops for staff before the crisis begun, this would have eased the very immediate pressure in March – however this was overcome with time. We have been frustrated at times by the limitations of an estate not built for social distancing. We have also been frustrated by changing or very late government guidance. Timely and clear government decision making would have made the crisis management easier. Equally, an earlier understanding on the part of the government of the realities of universities who have a high proportion of commuter students, would have made things easier.

Big changes

Peter Brook is an experienced HR Director who has been interim HRD at two universities in the past year. He thinks that “the biggest change for us is a permanent change in mindset towards home-based and remote working and an investment in hardware and systems to ensure that staff have the best possible tools for remote working. The reduced time spent commuting is a real benefit that should not be lost in the future. 

We have prepared a new flexible working policy ready to go in the new year which will mean that roles will be designated as either fully or partly available for home working, with the expectation that most roles will be delivered by a fairly even mix of office and home-based working.  Some roles will still need to be on campus all the time but, overall, this should relieve pressure on office space and enable campus facilities to be focused on the needs of students who continue to expect campus delivery of teaching and key services.

Another key change of course, is to make every one of us aware of our health and safety responsibilities and the need for a Covid-safe office and teaching environment.”

At Sheffield Hallam there has been a similar change in the last 8 months. Sally explains, “we have accelerated work already underway to move away from paper processes – from moving to fully online enrolment to virtual examination boards, from adapting our approach to extenuating circumstances to invoicing. Much of this change will be permanently adopted – some of this is unsurprising and in line with an already well-established direction of travel, but other aspects have been less expected, although welcome.

Assessment practice is perhaps one of the areas that has seen surprising successes in terms of digital practices, improving experience and efficiency alike. We have successfully revised – even transformed – a range of our “traditional” examination type assessments into new and innovative types of assessment that robustly maintain our standards while also enhancing our students’ abilities to demonstrate their learning.  This is very exciting for us and we are focused on ensuring this momentum and innovation, and not “reverting” to what are increasingly seen as more limited and limiting models of assessment.

Like many organisations, our working styles and digital skills are likely to change permanently – with a greater “normalisation” of working remotely as well as in the office. The exact balance will need further time and thought to work through; we have work underway to look at this.” 

The nature of the pandemic and ever-changing rules and regulations has enabled universities to adapt and become more agile when it comes to decision making and this has resulted in better outcomes. It has become more swift and less reliant on committee structures and communication from the Executive has become better.

At Coventry University, the introduction of the “Leadership Response Group – twice weekly tactical meetings have enabled timely responses to the changing circumstances and effective decision making.” Magi Hoppitt

So what have we learnt?

Whilst whole organisations transitioned to remote working overnight, there were gaps in knowledge and skill – particularly in technology areas. Confidence of all academic staff with online platforms and delivery was low and is still being developed. This is an area that may need further resourcing. Also, management competencies in supporting staff and managing performance effectively has been highlighted and if this situation were to continue for a much longer period, leaders and managers may need to develop additional skills sets.   

The COVID crisis continues, but positives that have been bought about include the realisation of the benefits that have come from working from home, the importance of support for wellbeing, the need to ensure digital technology is up to date and colleagues are equipped to handle it. Engagement is key to delivering a strategy and the epidemic has highlighted the huge importance, more than ever to engage and communicate – whether this is just a simple check in call with colleagues and friends or a more formalised team catch up or one to one.

How employers have supported staff over the last 10 months is something that many people are now considering and those that have been supported have a greater feeling of loyalty, whilst those that a have experienced increased pressure, without the adequate support are questioning whether they want to stay long term with their current employer.

The next few months will continue to be challenging in many ways, but there is real sense of resilience and a feeling that we are moving clear to a new dawn and the future which will look and feel much brighter.

If you would like to find out more about re:find and how we can support you and your business through these challenges then please get in touch.

James Cumming is our MD, Interim and Transformation Search specialist. If you’ve got a hard-to-fill role and need some help, get in touch. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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