Tackle precarity or lose ‘sense of community’, says v-c
Building communities ‘people are deep, deep tired now and they need a bit of compassion’
The higher education sector in the UK needs to focus on fixing issues like precarious contracts and the gender pay gap if it is to avoid damaging a “sense of community” that ultimately would affect its reputation, the leader of the 2021 University of the Year has said.
Cara Aitchison, vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University, told Times Higher Education that the pandemic had left staff across the UK exhausted and the priority for institutions now must be focusing on their welfare.
Cardiff Met picked up its University of the Year accolade at the THE Awards in November after impressing judges with its response to the Covid-19 crisis and its progress in turning around an institution previously under threat of merger.
As well as its improved performance, the university’s entry emphasised its focus on employee health and well-being – especially during the pandemic – with a 2020 survey finding it was well above the sector average for staff agreeing that the institution was a “good place to work”.
Professor Aitchison said that her five years at the university, which had been facing financial difficulties when she took over in 2016, leading to voluntary redundancies, had shown her that community cohesion should perhaps be a higher priority than finances in the present Covid-hit situation.
“I probably wouldn’t start with the finances now, I would turn to them pretty quickly, but I think we have to build communities. I think people are deep, deep tired now and they need a bit of compassion. They need to feel that they are part of a community,” she said.
“To make the big changes and tackle the big challenges, you have to do that from the base of a strong community and if I go back five years, there were times when it was pretty tough and pretty lonely and it would have been easier to have done things if I’d had the full backing of a really strong, empowered community and I think that’s what the sector is looking for now.”
She added it was therefore “incumbent” on everyone in the sector to address some of the issues affecting staff, such as insecure contracts and differences in pay between male and female employees.
“We’ve got to tackle the gender pay gap, we’ve got to tackle precarious contracts,” she continued. “You cannot build a sense of community when the majority of your staff are on precarious contracts.”
Professor Aitchison added that if such concerns were not addressed through “major changes” there was a danger that some universities in the UK could “move off into more difficult territory that damages the sense of community, which ultimately damages the finances and the reputation”.
However, she also acknowledged that leaders were facing an unprecedented situation in the UK sector with a bundle of major priorities brought on by the pandemic, government policy and changing economic needs.
“The real challenge for senior leadership at the moment is being able to tackle all these things simultaneously. It is riding the unicycle while spinning the plates and fire-eating,” she said.