In anticipation of our Autumn Conference, taking place on 24 November, our speakers share their reflections of learning from the past six months, and predictions of challenges and opportunities ahead for HE Professionals. In this blog, Susannah and Mariyana talk about the importance of remembering to look after ourselves and to support each other.

Susannah Marsden
Director of Student & Academic Services and Registrar | City, University of London

What learning are you taking from the last six months?

When I look back at the last 6 months, I am unbelievably proud of how my team has excelled and the kindness and support that everyone has shown each other. Having a leadership role in a university during the past 6 months has been an unprecedented challenge; what I needed to do in my role to support the University to complete the 2019-20 academic year while simultaneously prepare for 2020-21 meant radical change in what was required of me, and what I required of myself. On some days I genuinely did not know how I would get through to the evening. Factors that we each manage on a usual day-to-day basis became heightened; personal resilience, creative problem-solving, teamwork and taking care of yourself. Time for listening and talking to people, to help each other work-wise or personally, was not a nice-to-have but essential, even if it was on a screen or via WhatsApp. And when we look at the output, universities have completely transformed their delivery of the educational and student experience in a matter of months. Whether it works is a wait and see, but the speed of change shows that institutions can move more quickly than may have been the case previously. This provides an opportunity to re-set our approaches to future ways of working. 

What are the biggest challenges coming up and what does this tell us about where our focus should be right now?

The focus should be on people. Whether staff or students we are all in this situation, yet each person will be experiencing the impact of the pandemic individually and have different views on what it means for them and society. Worldwide we are in a chaotic and unknown place as to what the next day or the medium-term future holds. In universities we do not know how students will respond to a new university experience and what we will need to adapt further. For staff, many are understandably exhausted and anxious especially where the financial stability of some institutions is challenging. When we look to 2021-22, it is inevitable that life in universities will again be different, but we don’t know what that will mean in practice. In response there are two things we can do. Firstly, we should identify those things that we can control individually and collectively and focus wherever we can on those. Secondly, we need to keep supporting each other. 

What do you consider to be the opportunities for HE Professionals?

Finding the new pace for universities to operate. I think this will fall somewhere between pre-March 2020 and the sometimes uncomfortable untested speed we had to operate since that time. All of us have the opportunity to contribute to thinking on that in making universities even better places to be part of. Secondly, the current and future will present new needs, and this presents the opportunity to consider where you want to position yourself and how you want to navigate your path. 

Susannah will be delivering working session 101 Journeys through our profession and our changing landscape alongside Hugh Jones at our Autumn Conference.

Mariyana Bushara
Organisational Development Advisor | University of Sussex

What learning are you taking from the last six months?

That how we deal with crisis differs from one person to another, there is no right or wrong way of coping. In the last few months, I learnt to really appreciate and be grateful for the things that I usually take for granted such as my family and friends, having a structure to my day, good health, exercise and fresh air and the power of a hug! Knowing so much about mental health doesn’t make us immune to stress, low mood or anxiety, hence it’s important to reflect on any coping strategies we used previously and re-use them in time of need. 

What are the biggest challenges coming up and what does this tell us about where our focus should be right now?

It has become clear that the known and unknown impact of the pandemic on mental health is going to be with us for a while. Now more than ever we need to focus on looking after the mental wellbeing of ourselves and our staff. There will be constant change ahead and staff need to be resilient in order to face the constant changing environment. Not only to survive, but to thrive.  

What do you consider to be the opportunities for HE Professionals?

To work differently, get a work-life balance, use technology to do the repetitive jobs so that the skills of our staff is put to better use. This will provide individuals with a new challenge and development opportunities which in part plays an important role in wellbeing. 

Mariyana will be delivering working session 102 Using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) principles to improve psychological wellbeing at our Autumn Conference.

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