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Universities in a changing world: Sharing best practice from across the Commonwealth

Published on 05 October 2020

Across the Commonwealth and beyond, universities have rapidly adapted to a changing landscape in higher education.

We are at a critical time for universities to turn the threat of COVID-19 into an opportunity. However, embedding new ways of working requires not only a shift in individual working patterns - but changes at an organisation level too.

Earlier this year we shared best practice from universities responding to COVID-19 at a time when many were still grappling with the changes. Throughout this we have seen the pivotal role that HR departments have played in supporting university leaders, staff, and students to navigate the challenges caused by COVID-19 and future ways of working and learning.

Here are just some of the ways that HR professionals at universities and organisations have responded to COVID-19, shared during the ACU HR in HE Community virtual conference, Universities in a changing world: HR responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Leadership in the time of COVID-19

The University of Auckland in New Zealand spent four weeks upskilling their entire academic workforce, meaning staff had time to both redesign their curriculum and deliver it with confidence. They introduced a cost reductive programme in which staff could use their payroll to contribute to a student support fund. Their supporting staff programme also equipped managers with resources and updates.

The United States International University-Africa in Kenya set up two taskforces in response to COVID-19 - one on health advice management, and the other on how to continue teaching and learning online. The transition to teaching and working online was fairly seamless due to the university’s investment in their IT infrastructure. To address the challenge of internet access, the University established partnerships with major telecom companies for low internet bundles for staff and students and provided staff with technical training.

Online learning was not common in India before the pandemic hit. With a network of 800 universities, the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) supported university leaders with training webinars and cultural events for students. AIU also responded to an increase in mental health issues among students by arranging counselling sessions.

Mental health & wellbeing

To manage anxiety around returning to the campus, the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom offered online inductions and support to help students understand the everyday, changing COVID-19 policies. Employees and students are sharing ideas, strategies, and concerns through virtual learning and online communities. This includes yoga classes, meditation courses and online forums for staff to share lockdown stories, gardening tips, and advice on working remotely. Staff are also supported with access to LinkedIn learning clubs, personal messages from senior leaders, time for volunteering and extra holiday.

84 % of Canadians reported worsened mental health concerns since the pandemic onset. The University of Waterloo (UW) uses an evidence-based approach to wellbeing and mental health. Their studies revealed financial uncertainty, difficulty separating work and home life, feelings of isolation and an increased demand for mental health support services from staff and students. UW responded by encouraging staff to take time away from their screens, delivering wellness programmes virtually, flexible working, introducing wellness champions and introducing a ‘meet and move challenge’ to prompt staff to take meetings outside.

Limiting screen time resonates with the University of the West Indies’ advice to set boundaries and limits with social media use and news consumption. Other useful strategies to look after mental health and wellbeing include living in the present, accepting things that you have no control over, naming your feelings and being compassionate with yourself.

Diversity, belonging and inclusion

Universities and organisations have a responsibility to strengthen diversity and build inclusive cultures. Founder of Ignite your Potential, Kul Mahay, warns that a heightened period of uncertainty, perceived lack of control and the spread of misinformation increases the risks of bias, xenophobia, and racism.

In the United Kingdom, Sheffield Hallam University is implementing a leadership training programme that supports minority staff and students. The training builds on the importance of inclusive leadership and emotional and cultural intelligence as key to organisational change. In addition, they gather intelligence from staff and students through surveys to inform their wellbeing initiatives, share regular video messages from leaders, provide free counselling and legal advice.

The pandemic has exacerbated socio-economic exclusion. Stellenbosch University in South Africa found that they had to deliver online learning in contexts where there was no running water. Many students who rely on university infrastructures - from internet access to food –are now fending for themselves. To respond to socio-economic needs, Stellenbosch University made laptops available for those in need, negotiated with cellular networks to ensure free access to their online portals, and provided students with data to complete their academic year.

The future of HR in the digital age

Digital technology has accelerated information sharing, innovation, and engagement, whilst shaping a new generation of people with different attitudes, qualifications, and behaviour. Yusef Saleh from Kenya Business Registration Services has witnessed a paradigm shift in HR from annual performance reviews to continuous performance development (CPD). The question of how HR can manage performance remotely needs to focus on continual performance improvement, fostering collaborations, transparency, regular feedback, and guidance to employees on context of daily work activities.

For Dr Sajaua Banerjee, CEO of Capstone People Consulting, technology plays a key role in democratising and empowering work cultures. HR has benefited from technology-based innovations, as seen with platforms used for hiring, some using AI and analytics to make informed decisions to bring new talent into organisations. The pandemic presents a significant opportunity for HR to become a community of trusted advisors to be the voice of balance, compassion, and fairness of their organisations.

Mobilising large numbers of people to work from home has been one of the largest global workplace transitions to date. The switch to remote working and learning remains one of the biggest shifts in higher education. The University of Jos in Nigeria noted attitudinal changes in older staff towards technology. In lockdown, the freedom of connecting digitally broke down long-held resistance to technology, whilst simultaneously cutting down on the costs of physical meetings. Looking to the future, priority will be given to investing in the technological infrastructure of the university.

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This event was delivered by the ACU HR in HE Community in partnership with ACU member, Amity University. The HR in HE Community is a forum for all staff working in HR, from the most experienced professionals to those looking to increase, expand or develop their institution’s HR function. Grow your network - join the HR in HE Community.