HR in universities: “One day is never the same as the next”

Joanne Marshall is head of Universities Human Resources and director of people and campus services at the University of Bradford

Joanne Marshall has recently become the chair of Universities Human Resources, a body that supports people professionals across the higher education sector. With university HR teams facing unprecedented challenges due to a sharp rise in coronavirus outbreaks on campus – on top of existing concerns around budgets and student numbers – they are leaning on each other for support.

Marshall talked to Personnel Today about how she juggles the day-to-day work of running people and campus services at the University of Bradford with providing a lifeline for others in a similar boat through her new role at UHR.

How does UHR support university HR professionals?

We aim to be an advocate and voice for university HR professionals across the UK; we share information and represent them on national groups, carry out research and look at best practice.

The level of peer support from these networks is invaluable – universities are all separate businesses at the end of the day although it can sometimes feel as though we’re a public body. We also offer professional development, for example through aspiring directors’ programmes or bespoke support on employee relations.

What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?

The biggest thing for us at the moment is the wellbeing of staff. These are really challenging times and we want to support them. At the same time every organisation has financial challenges – some student numbers are up on where they were planned to be while others are down because there are fewer international students, which affects our income.

So we’re thinking about what our organisations will look like, what are target operating models might be. But a lot of it is out of our control. Without student fairs we can’t get out to potential students, so while we may get over this year’s challenge, it’s next year that might be a problem.

In many ways we’re facing the same challenges as a lot of businesses during the pandemic – engagement, morale, mental health. We have staff with homeschooling or caring responsibilities and it’s testing everyone’s resilience.

Some universities have said if employees are not student facing they don’t want them back on campus until early 2021 – that means some staff will have been working from home for 12 months. That all has an impact on their mindset.

How are university HR teams supporting students and the wider community?

At Bradford we’ve been working with the NHS, councils and local employers to look at how we can maximise our relationships with them.

In many ways we’re facing the same challenges as a lot of businesses during the pandemic – engagement, morale, mental health.

An example of our work with stakeholders is our relationship with the Bradford Council of Mosques, getting messages out to community leaders as we have a lot of students staying at home.

We’ve also worked closely with accommodation providers, local food banks and mental health services – Bradford has had high case figures and our civic role has definitely improved, which can only be a good thing. We’ve even been working with local employers such as Jet2 (which is based in Leeds Bradford Airport), supporting the government on its national Kickstart scheme.

How central is HR to the crucial decisions going forward?

My role is to support the HR community around key challenges such as pay negotiations and pensions challenges. HR is absolutely at centre stage of every academic organisation going forward in a way we have not been before. Our actions have come to the fore because of the pandemic and the central role of staff and student wellbeing.

I cover people and campus services, which includes health and safety and security as well as HR. We’re even taking a role in daily coronavirus test and trace activities – here at Bradford we have a team dedicated to triangulating information so we can respond to clusters and outbreaks and protect staff and students. One day is never the same as the next.

What’s next?

Another challenge is how do we keep moving forward into the bigger issues ahead without becoming enveloped in Covid. We need to get our head above that detail. Issues such as Black Lives Matter and inclusion are all massive on our agendas and we have the opportunity to take that forward and make a difference. We mustn’t lose these opportunities because we’re bogged down in dealing with the pandemic.

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