We have been talking to university leaders about managing the Covid-19 crisis and their visions for the future. With views gathered from a series of one-to-one interviews, SUMS’ Community of Practice Groups meeting virtually, along with student surveys, SUMS is able to take a service-by-service review of university operations. It has found a sector eager to change and seeing positives in adversity.  Here, Helen Baird and Jeannette Strachan, Principal Consultants, share insight from their research into the implications of the pandemic on student services.

Student services directorates deliver a complex set of functions and comprise staff from a variety of professional backgrounds and with specialist skills-sets. Functions vary across directorates, but often include essential services such as counselling, mental health and wellbeing, disability support, sexual misconduct and harassment support, student communications, student finance, careers, chaplaincy and residential life.

Many of these service areas have had prominent roles in supporting students through this crisis to date and will continue to do so. Student services teams have responded well. This is unsurprising since they are used to working in uncertain contexts where “they need to be reactive and creative in anxiety-driven situations”. Staff have demonstrated adaptability and resilience in embracing different ways of working, as student support services have moved rapidly and seamlessly from a predominantly face-to-face service to exclusively online delivery.

When the then-emerging Covid-19 crisis began to impact university student support services in mid-late January, the immediate concern was for students overseas in high-risk countries: China and Iran and later Northern Italy. Some institutions realised quickly that they did not have a single, authoritative data source on where students are at any one time. Instead, information was spread across multiple departments and systems or did not exist. Most students overseas were on organised placements or exchanges but not all were where they were expected to be, with some having gone off on fieldwork or travelling. Others had left their university in the UK temporarily, but had not informed anyone of this, such as Chinese students going home for New Year.  As time went on, the situation escalated quickly from university support staff being able to respond to and manage individual students’ circumstances as they ran out of capacity to do so.

Read the full Rapid Response Briefing Paper:  The impact of Covid-19 on student services here.

SUMS’ consultants are gathering in-depth views from university leaders across the full breadth of university operations. We’ll be publishing their service-by-service findings later this month. Register here to receive your copy of our full sector report.

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