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COVID-19 and the Future of Higher Ed Staff

Three speculations.

September 28, 2020
 
 

San Francisco State University plans to lay off 131 people, about 8 percent of its total staff, with most of the layoffs affecting administrative, information technology and university operations positions, SF Weekly reported. Faculty are not affected.

Inside Higher Ed, "COVID-19 Roundup," Sept. 14, 2020.

How will COVID-19 impact the future of higher ed staff?

Can we look beyond the news of COVID-19-related staff layoffs to find some broader trends in staff employment?

How might higher ed staff think about navigating their careers during and after COVID-19? Three speculations:

Speculation No. 1: The Acceleration of a Shift From Fixed to Variable Institutional Staffing Costs

The highest costs in any college or university budget are people. With COVID-related expenses going up and revenues constrained by a decline in residential students (residence halls, event tickets, etc.), schools will be accelerating efforts to reduce staffing expenses. Layoffs will be a part of this, but a much larger shift will be a move from hiring “permanent” staff to outsourcing services previously provided in-house. This accelerated transition will not be driven by immediate costs (as outsourcing can be more expensive) or quality (as developing internal capacity is usually better), but by a search for financial flexibility.

Higher ed, regrettably, is already far down the path of moving people costs from fixed to variable. The decades-long slow-motion shift from tenure-track to a contingent faculty workforce is the clearest example of this shift. Having largely abandoned the tenure model, most colleges and universities look toward adjunct and visiting instructors to keep instructional costs down.

Over the next decade, we will see a similar trend play out in staff. The shift toward moving staff off the long-term payroll liability column is, of course, not new. Schools have been replacing campus service employees (food services, janitorial, maintenance, etc.) with outside contractors for many years now. What will be new is that outside firms will increasingly handle positions previously staffed by university employees. Examples might include student counseling, alumni affairs, development, finance, HR and technology. This shift will be enabled by expanding cloud-based platform providers that can manage services that previously run locally.

As higher ed staff work gets outsourced, the remaining full-time staff will spend more time interfacing with outside service providers. The staff skills in demand will be expertise in vendor/partner research, contracting, management and evaluation.

Speculation No. 2: A Shift from Residential Education to Online Learning Staff

Think about all the nonfaculty jobs that are necessary to run a residential educational enterprise. Face-to-face learning is a people-intensive enterprise. Managing and running residential facilities, dining operations, athletics programs (varsity and recreational), and other aspects of student life require an army of people.

What happens when the educational enterprise tilts from residential to online? So far, the significant shift to online education has been in graduate programs (mostly master's) -- and less in undergraduate programs. COVID-19 will supercharge the change of master's programs from campus to online. Where higher ed staff are hired in the next few years, it will be to support new online graduate programs.

What is less clear is if undergraduate education will also begin to move from campus to online. For large public institutions (including community colleges), we could see a faster shift to undergraduate online learning than anticipated. For students who are already commuters, the advantages of online courses (in terms of flexibility) will push many into this modality. Having experienced remote instruction during COVID-19, many more faculty (and departments) will now be comfortable teaching online courses. Students who previously shied away from registering for online courses will do so, having learned that they can successfully move through their programs.

From a higher ed staff perspective, we will see an accelerated evolution toward jobs to support remote students (and faculty), and away from employment to support residential students (and faculty). Anyone who makes their living doing a campus-based job dependent solely on residential students should look to broaden their skill sets to include an increasingly online and remote student body.

Speculation No. 3: Greater Stratification in Staff Autonomy and Job Security

The move toward outsourcing and online education will lead to greater stratification within higher ed staff. Online learning accentuates the skills bias within university employees that is already endemic to much of the labor market. Middle-skill campus jobs will likely be hollowed out, leaving in their place a few highly skilled staff roles and many lower-skilled jobs.

On the one hand, these changes should diminish the faculty/staff divide that characterizes modern higher education. Faculty and staff will work collaboratively on developing and running new online programs. Staff will have leadership roles in entrepreneurial program development and in managing all those outside service providers. As education moves from a solo to a team sport, traditional faculty and staff positions will evolve to adapt to a new era of instructional flexibility and scale.

For most staff, however, higher ed employment will be less secure. The move in campus service roles from employees hired by the university to employees employed by outside contracting firms will diminish job security and compensation. A job at a college or a university has traditionally been a desirable job, as these positions may not have paid all that well, but they usually came with benefits. Companies that provide outsourced services to universities may rely on temporary and contingent employees.

Higher education will increasingly reflect and reinforce the broader employments trends that we see playing out across the labor market in the years to come. No longer will higher ed staff be insulated from larger employment trends, if indeed we ever were.

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