Ten ways to help your university team through the virus crisis

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This priority list will help prepare for the challenges ahead

The higher education system has had to face a range of threats and emergencies in recent years and amidst the mass concerns about budgets, leadership and, oh yes, occasionally students, it can sometimes be difficult to work out which way to turn.

After working with 21 universities across the country and conducting 14 organisational reviews over the past decade, we have picked up a few tips on how to weather crises of confidence and/or revenue.

We have put together a priority list of activities that will help prepare your higher education team for the challenges ahead.

Succession planning – this is rarely implemented and almost never done well. In this case, departmental managers – particularly those of professional teams who keep the wheels of the university turning – should be developing clear plans for short- and medium-term succession, to prepare for potential absences of staff. If staff become ill, or are isolated for a few weeks, who can step into their shoes and how will you make sure they keep their files accessible and updated, so the team can move on even if a few staff are quarantined.

Get creative – travel constraints and looming threats over bans of assembling in large groups mean that all universities face uncertainty over who will enrol and/or teach. In addition, staff and students face a fair bit of anxiety. Is the vice-chancellor’s virus update really going to cut the mustard as your central communication tool? How are you using social media – and have you developed a strategy to keep esprit de corps strong?

Grow numbers where you can – every university and TAFE has courses which don’t attract the number of students they should, or could. Reviewing your current market share and taking a fresh look at market opportunities should be work already underway – with fresh eyes, not just the “oh but we looked at that last year and didn’t find anything” excuse. There are several opportunities for growth right now, even while the conventional pipelines are contracting. Don’t accept anyone saying that overall enrolment decline is inevitable in 2020.

Gear up for an unusually significant domestic midyear intake – nobody knows what will be going on by mid-year. Travel could be at a standstill. Classes could be halted. Who knows? But the one certainty is that your marketing team can’t treat mid-year like normal. The creative needs to be different, the call to action needs to be relevant, the target market needs to be wider – and a strong international strategy with messages better differentiated for key markets needs to be ready. We can already see a number of markets showing signs of opening up. Throw out your templated mid-year campaigns and get strategic, or risk losing market share to your competitors who are already preparing a fresh approach.

Recalibrate your international positioning – international travel bans, virus headlines and wild fluctuations in markets will have affected students, parents, grandparents, agents and pathway providers in different ways. International recruitment teams are already changing their messaging, but a much broader positioning effort encompassing multiple potential scenarios is required. The fiercely guarded silo operations of international offices at many institutions will need to crack open the doors wider than usual to coordinate innovative approaches for institutional engagement and positioning, particularly for 2021 commencements.

Make better use of your team – bring the performance reviews forward, but use them to work out how you can re-focus the staff who aren’t doing their bit. Use the opportunity to provide feedback, improve efficiency and build up the capacity of your in-house teams. At a time when you can’t recruit and you can’t get casuals, you need to get the best out of your existing team. Don’t just reset the KPI’s, make sure the team has the tools and expertise to deliver them.

Look at your budget a bit closer before your CFO does – it’s a great exercise. If your budget is rock solid, it will be a chance to refine your defensive arguments for when the razor gang knocks. If your budget is a little generous, you can cut out the fat now and squirrel some savings away in advance, ready to spend later to address virus-related issues, or give up to the razor gang the moment they arrive, as a peace offering. They will be so shocked at someone voluntarily giving budget back they will probably forget to look any further at your accounts.

Hold on to your best – all this talk of uncertainty, recession and toilet paper shortages is enough to make anyone reconsider how they can best spend their working days. Even in times of recession, there are jobs for good people, and if you are about to enter a hiring freeze, you can’t afford to be losing yours. How positive is your culture? Have you assembled a team that will thrive even in quarantine?

Fight for what’s important – the university is still operating, students still want to learn and research is still underway. If your institution is making noise about cutting budgets and programs, you need to prepare a strong evidence base to fight for important programmes and initiatives that might be misunderstood or simply not valued by others. Start preparing now.

Check in on researchers – while much of the focus has been on the impact of the virus on students, many research staff are also running into huge obstacles, particularly those with overseas collaboration and/or reliant on overseas research infrastructure. Check in with them to see if you can help and if the sudden travel hiatus has opened up new opportunities to better support them.

Lastly, because it is a constant requirement, and a constant failure point, we didn’t include communication on the list, but at a time of perceived crisis, extraordinary communication becomes vital. Communication between your team, between your managers and your staff, between your team and other siloes, and with the university / TAFE hierarchy is always going to be an area requiring an investment of your soul/time – but is more important than ever right now.

Clarity, mutual understanding, forbearance and a focus on solutions over problems are going to be pivotal to help others progress alongside you. Very easy to say, but often the aspect found most wanting during times of crisis.

Tim Winkler is Director of Australia’s first higher education Strategy and Marketing consultancy, Twig Marketing.