Coronavirus: 'This is more difficult than I expected'

This is a challenging time for leaders - we need to look to the future but also be in the moment, says David Hughes

David Hughes

Coronavirus: These are difficult times for everyone, including college leaders, says David Hughes, of the Association of Colleges

I know I am lucky. I do a job I believe passionately in, I have a strong and loving close family and we have all remained healthy thus far. But if I am totally honest, I am finding many things about this crisis more difficult to deal with than I had expected to. And I know I am not alone.

It is a strange time to be a leader (even more strange than usual), as decisions that have huge implications must be made at speed, with little precedent. Every day I speak to college leaders, officials and parliamentarians, and the same thing comes up time and again… this is a pressure that most of us have never known before.


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Coronavirus has taken over my working life

The past five weeks have been incredibly busy for us all. Covid-19 has taken over my working life. Working days are now even longer and more intense, with meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype almost back to back all day. Email traffic has increased, with commonly more than 150 emails each day that all need proper action or response. That’s more than normal for me. And every email now feels more urgent and more important, particularly because the emails telling me about cakes in the kitchen have stopped altogether.

We work very closely with the government – mainly with the Department for Education, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Office for Students, Ofqual, the Treasury and No 10, but also with the Department for Health, Cabinet Office and other agencies. All of them have rightly and understandably put hundreds and hundreds of civil servants and officials on to dealing with the crisis. All of them are working long hours and strenuously generating lots of advice, new policy, programmes and rules and communicating more than ever. In comparison, there’s about a dozen of us at the Association of Colleges dealing with their hundreds.

So, often, it feels like a deluge of questions, ideas, proposals to check and communications to consider, respond to and digest, all being immediate and all high priority. We are all glued to our laptops at our kitchen tables, makeshift offices, and even ironing boards turned into desks, trying to influence, to support. We’re intent on ensuring that officials and ministers understand what colleges need, what they do, how they can help and what can help them.

At the same time as all of that, we are responding to and supporting our members (around 240 colleges). I’m pleased with how engaged they are with us and us with them. They are asking questions daily, seeking clarity on what is happening, worried to death about their solvency and cashflow, wanting advice and guidance. As it should be, it's our job to field those questions and issues and try to offer some clarity, a way forward and a vision. And sometimes it's just our job to be a friendly ear to listen and provide counsel.

I am not complaining. In some ways, it is energising – I have often thrived during a crisis (anyone remember the capital crisis and the Education Maintenance Allowance crisis in the LSC days?) because I think I can mostly stay calm and clear-headed, but this one feels more difficult. The leadership challenge in this crisis is like none any of us have encountered before. I think there are two big reasons for that. Firstly, because it is all-consuming, across every aspect of our society, affecting every bit of the economy, impacting on every person, family and community. There is no respite. Usually in a crisis, there is a bit of downtime, or a chance to switch off and get some much-needed space from the problem to be able to return and tackle it. No such luck with this one.

The news talks of nothing else than what is happening and how the future is impossible to predict. That’s the other reason why I think I am finding it so hard – the uncertainty and the challenge of trying to see the future. In my role, I want to be able to offer some sense of leadership and vision – to be able to help staff and members (and others perhaps) to see through to a sense of a secure ending. I want to have a vision of a better society and a stronger and fairer economy in which colleges play their natural and vital part.

The future of colleges

It’s a vision I have been working on for the past few years, not least with the Independent Commission for the College of the Future, and it’s a vision which I think is compelling and exciting. But it’s difficult to hang on to it during this crisis with any real confidence, when there are so many basic, urgent and vital issues to deal with.

My coping strategy for home and life centres around getting some exercise most days, outside whenever I can, cooking and baking nice food to share with my wife and grown-up children, not drinking alcohol every day (it’s a habit, isn’t it, to have a beer or a glass of wine as the sun sets?) and trying to find time for Zoom calls with family and friends (although after a day full of Zoom calls, they are not as relaxing as you’d hope). And whether it’s cycling, baking or bingeing Ozark on Netflix, I hope that every leader is finding time to do the things that help them relax and re-energise, because your colleges, your staff, your students and your community need you at your best.

Some days it is hard to hang on to a positive and confident vision, but positivity is what has always worked for me. What I’ve realised, though, in a call this morning with a colleague, is that I need to recalibrate a little and adapt. Rather than seeking that long-term vision to see me through, rather than seeking confidence that I am getting it right, I think I need to be more in the moment. I think I need to understand how what we are doing now – remotely, in isolation, online – might be a major part of the new normal. The long-term vision I want to find is probably in the here and now, so we need to understand it, learn about it and use it properly to work out what will come next and, importantly, what we want to come next. I think we all need to stop thinking about "what things will be like when this is all over" and recognise that "it" won’t be all over, the future is there for us to shape and craft from now.

Overall, I remain optimistic and am working hard to help secure a way forward for colleges and for students, as well as for AoC itself and our great team of people. I know that is my most important job – to help colleges understand the now and help to create a better future. We are making progress, sometimes slowly and painfully, but progress nonetheless.

The light at the end of the tunnel emerges from the hard work and dedication we can all see across the economy, which will no doubt transform our society. I hope and believe it will be for the better. For now, colleges are working strenuously to ensure that nobody is disadvantaged by this crisis and that everybody has access to the learning and education that will help them succeed. That’s worth working for and keeping focused for, and it keeps me sane through these tough times. 

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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