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  • Martin Betts

Gold at the bottom of the pyramid

Updated: Nov 9


The end of the teaching year is a time when many people are most stressed, tired and lacking in energy, in the best of years. This has been very far from being the best of years in any of our universities.

Many academics are facing one last major focus on marking. They are having either a bonus, or further pressure, of promotion round outcomes and major grant announcements to absorb. Professional staff have their own demands in finishing off and tidying up the year’s work, without the prospect of any advancement in their personal roles or rewards. And all this is in a good year.

2020 has seen all endure the most significant disruption to working lives in a generation. It has brought the greatest uncertainty to futures that almost all of them will have encountered. We struggle to manage energy to get to year’s end in good shape in the best of years. This year they have worked off of adrenaline, drained batteries, and put in the extra hours, to an extent they would never have anticipated or prepared for.

And now what happens? The change management proposals come out and people find out whether they have survived with their own job safe, at least for now. If they are lucky. There will not be many staff in a university, who will not know of at least one, and more likely many, colleagues and friends, who will be less lucky. The grief and sensitivity in preparing to farewell people that have been part of teams and communities, for years and decades in many cases, will add further to the load and pressure that staff will now endure.

And then will come the realisation that getting out might actually have been a blessing. What will next year actually be like? The medium term outlook for Australian universities is not getting much better and is unlikely to any time soon. Coming back in the new year, to organisations that are going through the biggest change programs they have ever experienced, will be chaotic and stressful. It is happening in a new climate of higher performance expectations and pressure to achieve. And those that do come back will be needing to resettle, re-establish work programs, and be expected to ramp up outcomes with less support, fewer colleagues, and more of the workload falling upon them. We have a mental health crisis in the wider population and our own version of it staring us in the face in our universities.

So how do we respond? The annual staff excellence awards struggle to cut it in the best of years. They are going to look like poor substitutes for what is really needed at the end of 2020. The invitations to submit comments on change proposals are seen as mandated requirements of EA agreements and will really struggle to appear genuine and authentic at the end of this year. And the ramped up communications tread a fine line between the required transparency, truth and authenticity, and the danger of lacking empathy.

The inexorable trend in our managerial universities is towards academic workload models and performance metrics, and new position descriptions and service expectations for professional staff. It is tempting to resort to them under pressure as ways of leaders telling people what to do and how to do it. I don’t believe it will work.

Jane den Hollander, the former VC of Deakin University, has named the staff of our universities as the heroes of the hour in 2020. The fact our universities stayed open, through their biggest challenge of a generation, was in her view not due to VC’s, executive teams, or governing councils. It was due to heroic and extraordinary efforts of staff. She describes their value to us as the gold at the base of the pyramid.

The pyramid of our universities have great staff foundations. They have stood firm in these most turbulent of circumstances. They have endured shocks that will reverberate for months and years to come.

Our staff are the gold at the bottom of our pyramids. They need real care, compassion, and support. They need to be genuinely engaged, straight talking, and empowered to use their commitment, talent and innovation. They are people that care about each other and their university, and we need them to thrive for us all to survive.

This is a time when culture built up over decades can either be destroyed or unleashed. The leaders of our universities must find a way of mining and burnishing the passion and commitment and ingenuity of the gold at the bottom of their pyramids. I hope they realise how important this is and how to get help in doing this well. This is a time for leaders to empower their staff to change higher education experiences for good. You can hear our latest HEDx podcast with Jane den Hollander on Spotify and Apple.

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