The conditions at a university for staff - both professional and academic - to thrive and deliver the best learning outcomes possible for students, must include a sense of belonging and true care for their wellbeing. The global pandemic that started in 2020 sent the higher education landscape into upheaval; but perhaps it was the beginning of needed change.
Scott Pearsall is currently the Dean of Students and Director of Student Life at the University of Canberra, and I had the pleasure of discussing with him this idea of 'belonging' for the university staff community, as part of the context for the Symposium session "Staff in mind: creating a new normal for university staff wellbeing", which you can watch in full.
A pivotal moment for the tertiary sector
There's a significant cultural piece that needs to be done at the moment, and that's about re-engaging with staff and reconnecting with staff, instilling a sense of belonging, connectedness again, and particularly for those campuses that are the back operating, at least in part, face to face. That's really important - and reminding staff of a sense of purpose. Many universities have experienced a significant financial detriment, where staff are feeling anxious around job security and the future direction of the university, and what the changes mean, and the impact of international students not arriving in and us not being sure when they will arrive, on their institution. Working together and having clear messages of communication from university leadership around that is really important, but also making sure that at every level, that we're looking after each other.
The lived uni staff experience - isolating for many
Here at the University of Canberra, we have been very lucky, and fairly secure compared to other parts of Australia and New Zealand. The experience across my colleagues, again, has been quite varied. We've had staff who just commenced their work, as soon as we went into lockdown, and didn't have the chance to establish the same connectedness to our community that others did. There was much hard work done during the period by many staff at all levels to try and remain connected and support each other; but I imagine it would have been very difficult for those who came to a new city, to a new job, to then immediately be in lockdown and not have the opportunities to connect and work in ways that they anticipated.
How universities have responded so far
Universities at a grassroots level have really pulled together to look after their own. I think it's been an opportunity to come together, closer than ever. It has not been the same as working face to face; it has not been the same as being able to be on campus. But during those interrupted periods of time, the sense of community, the sense of common experience, the sense of looking after each other has been a very strong one. Leadership has been really important in terms of communications and messages of support and understanding, and trying to share with the community where we're heading and when things are likely to happen and so on.
"...during those interrupted periods of time, the sense of community, the sense of common experience, the sense of looking after each other has been a very strong one."
That's been one of the real the real benefits, people have pulled together and looked after each other. That has certainly helped many staff during a very difficult period. But also, I think there's likely to be quite a long tail to everything that's gone on. We've had a very impactful period in terms of loss, financial detriment, job insecurity and so on, and I know there has been a general increase in mental health concerns across the broader community and the tertiary sector is certainly included. That is going to remain with us for quite some time.
The longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on staff and students in universities
We're going to be dealing with a different community, with a different experience. We're going to be dealing with students who may be much more high needs - many of them have had their own financial distress, emotional impact, and loss during this period. Many of them have come and will continue to come with interrupted learning prior to their time at the university. On another level, we're entering into a change period as well. This will continue to place high demands on staff - the financial impact on universities is likely to mean that staff are going to be called on to continue to work 'above and beyond'. Staff have done that during 2020 and certainly the start of this year, the workload has been onerous and that responsibility has been very well-shouldered by staff across the sector, in terms of trying to care for each other and for students, and to continue the core business of the universities.
The sector has to adjust. Life compared to "pre COVID" and "pre 2020" is different now; we keep talking about "life post COVID", but I think it's going to be "life with COVID" moving forward.
Unexpected positives from the pandemic, for the tertiary sector
There was some great innovation, the sector moved with incredible agility. There are certainly some rich learnings for the tertiary sector to move forward with. Many silos across different universities were broken down. People collaborated a lot more. There was a great deal of community, a great sense of community and connectedness, albeit virtually at many points. These are the things that we need to seize on as a sector: that genuine care for our community, for those that have been impacted, the pulling together, the bringing together diverse areas to drive necessary change in a way that is agile and responsive and in the best interests of the community. Also, the research and the learning and teaching that's going on. These are some of the things that we need to continue to engender in our communities. At the most fundamental level, we just need to take time out to check in with other members of our team to make sure they're OK.
"At the most fundamental level, we just need to take time out to check in with other members of our team to make sure they're OK."
Do we need to introduce more things that we can do together to to promote and engender wellbeing, whether that's a meeting walking around the campus, or taking time out just to have 15 minutes sitting in the sun and chatting with one of your staff members, rather than doing that in the office? How do we continue to make staff feel as safe as possible, and for those who may be really impacted and continue to be anxious and distressed by the pandemic, making sure that they connect with the necessary support? Given that we've proven that virtual and remote work is possible and can be productive, will we continue to look at that as a viable and reasonable alternative to face to face work, where it's appropriate to do so?
What is the new direction?
For me, it's about community, it's about connectedness, it's about belonging... It's about a common sense of purpose. How do we get through this, and remain connected, foster that sense of belonging, and reaffirm the purpose? Things have changed; we're in a period of some uncertainty, particularly around the international student market. So what's the direction from here?
"we need to have a mentally well university community."
One of the things that remains critical, is we need to care for our staff, make sure that our staff have manageable workloads and support in whatever means that they're working. Because it's paramount that we look after their mental health, to engender the very best support for our students. One works hand in glove with the other: that we need to have a mentally well university community. We have to have our staff being well looked after. And if we do that, then we can really make sure that we're providing the highest quality care to to our students.