Sara Corcoran

Lead Consultant and Coach, AUA Consulting

Sara Corcoran is a Lead Consultant and Coach with AUA Consulting.  Sara has a public sector HR and Organisational Development background, with 20 years in Higher Education and more than a decade in the NHS.   She is a Fellow of the CIPD and Co-Chair of the Organisational Development in Higher Education Network.

Something’s been nagging at me through the holiday season. I’ve been pondering a theme in the corporate messaging that seemed to emerge in the final few weeks of the year, shared with me by a number of my coachees (from within and beyond the HE sector) and observed by others on a couple of social media platforms. The theme essentially was a note of thank you to staff, who had not only ensured continuity of service during the ‘unprecedented’ challenges of the year, but who had also delivered x or y project on time, on budget, without compromise to quality etc. I’m sure the sentiments expressed were genuine. However, they seemed to be striking a duff note. Throughout the year, as far as I could tell, almost every corporate communication was advising staff to reassess objectives and previously agreed deliverables, focusing on what absolutely needed to be done to maintain service and cutting out everything else, mindful of likely reduced staffing and also the impact on wellbeing of such sudden and considerable change in virtually every sphere of life. So how come these other projects had continued? It left me wondering how many staff/teams had actually had something removed from their to-do list for the year?

From what I can tell the question is relevant to a number of sectors, not just for HE. However, for those in HE, the question sits well alongside Kate Tapper’s WonkHE article about wellbeing (Getting through Covid-19 means rethinking resilience | Wonkhe), challenging the sector to ensure that there is genuine intent behind the wellbeing discourse: beautifully curated wellbeing offerings may actually be counter-productive to the psychological contract if there’s too much of a disconnect with how the business continues to drive workload. Leadership style and awareness of how decisions impact different teams can mitigate some of the pressure and some leadership teams have worked hard to try and get the balance right in their institutions. However, the system, as in the sector beyond the organisation’s walls, continues to dictate much of this pressure: the QA regime requires that the course be re-validated this year, regardless of whether the course team are having to shift the entire pedagogy to an online format; recruitment will be even more challenging next year so we must look to accelerate the new CRM software; minimal notice to respond to new policy announcements, which don’t appear to have been drafted in consultation with anyone who knows how an organisation like a university runs – and which are then revised, repeatedly. For many this is simply how the HE market now plays out and staff need to understand the institutional imperatives to attend to these issues alongside whatever Covid has thrown at us. It’s naïve to think otherwise. But it can make the rhetoric around wellbeing sound specious. The topic of burnout seems ever present and many senior management teams are concerned about how close to this are their direct reports, with so much uncertainty continuing as we enter 2021.  

Beautifully curated wellbeing offerings may actually be counter-productive to the psychological contract if there’s too much of a disconnect with how the business continues to drive workload.

I have really enjoyed working in this sector and hope to continue to do so for a good number of years yet! I think there continues to be the potential for really interesting and rewarding careers, but I wonder how many staff will decide ultimately that they are not willing to risk their physical health and mental wellbeing in order to serve the sector and take their energy and experience elsewhere? And we do need to think about how the dynamics of the sector impact the offer we’re making to attract quality staff to replace them?  Some things should be reasonably straightforward: evenings, weekends and holidays should not be the preserve of the more junior grades, but this may mean we need to have a few more staff at the junior end of the senior staff group. In lots of institutions, this has been the group that has been most targeted in efficiency drives and the remaining staff seem to be the most at risk of burn out right now – there is simply too much disruption for them to manage. Organisations (for which read the senior teams) may need to allow some opportunities to go by without getting involved: that new regional initiative, whilst very attractive, may be the final straw that takes out the key member of staff, so a deep understanding is needed of the pressure different teams are under, as is the discipline to not add further weight where they’re close to their limits. And whilst we’re busy looking at the quality of the teaching experience, potential rent rebates, admissions protocols for this summer (and beyond), we need to fully understand staff also as key stakeholders in the system – the staff experience drives the student experience. My final suggestion is that we must find ways for institutions to collaboratively work to influence the other stakeholders in the system (OfS, ministers etc) on not just the direction, but also the pace of and volume of change.

AUA Consulting is a consulting practice ‘of the sector for the sector’ – our Consultants are working now with a wide range of HE institutions on areas including governance; professional services structure and operations; student mental health; CPD and professional development. AUA Consultants are practitioners in higher education administration and management with a depth of experience and professional expertise.   AUA Consulting also offers a team of qualified coaches with extensive experience of supporting personal, professional and career development. 

To find how AUA Consulting can help you and your team, email Read more at AUA Consulting.