Virtual universities - what are the people implications universities need to consider?

by Tiffany Cao Senior Associate, PwC United Kingdom

Email +44 (0)7841 102387

While 2020 may be a year many will look forward to putting behind us, what’s stood out to me about this year is how we have adapted. In particular, how the pandemic has accelerated a shift in universities to a blended learning model and virtual campus experience.

Is this the end of campus and student life as we know it? I don’t think so. Rather it’s more about how universities find their ‘sweet spot’; one that maximises the benefits of virtual working and studying while still maintaining the unique, creative and lively atmosphere of university life.

There has also been an impact on staff. The need for home working meant IT investment and clear guidance. Universities had to revisit timetables. They engaged in regular communications and provided ongoing wellbeing support. Longer term it is likely that universities will need to reflect on reward packages and whether this is an opportunity to reset a new ‘deal’ with staff that puts flexible working and wellbeing at the top of the agenda.

But what about staff who work from home when home is not the UK?

As the pandemic turned the world upside down, some employees were dislocated, such as researchers who were overseas when borders closed. Others had to start new UK roles from home overseas. Universities have experienced a surge of requests to work from home, when home is not the UK. This all means an increased amount of potential risk for universities and a greater number of compliance requirements to manage.

Universities need to have a solid plan in place for managing their employer obligations in respect to this population of employees. And there are a number of areas that need to be considered; immigration, tax, social security, employer withholding and reporting obligations overseas, implications on benefit plans…the list goes on.

Universities need to consider the duty of care they owe these individuals. What is the reputational risk if they do not address these matters, and what is the cost in the short and longer term?

For example, we are currently helping a university register for social security in Italy, which is a time consuming and costly process. They appointed a new hire for a UK role but, as a result of COVID-19, they commenced the role in Italy. Questions to consider include eligibility to remain in the UK pension plan and whether existing UK insurance coverages, such as life insurance, remain valid for staff who are no longer working or do not work in the UK.

Many universities are reviewing what remedial action is required to address their compliance obligations in respect of those who were temporarily displaced. But there are also longer term compliance implications to consider.

If we rewind to the 2016 Universities Human Resource (UHR) conference, which PwC presented at, attendees identified a few key areas for change, including:

  • the need for greater flexibility from a working practice and learning experience (virtual courses),
  • more mobility with greater global opportunities for academic staff, and;
  • digitalisation to help enhance the previous two areas.

COVID-19 has accelerated these outcomes with many universities now playing catch up from a compliance, policy, process and governance perspective. Beyond compliance, other considerations include; employment law, cross-border pension issues, and broader HR implications such as technology enablement and performance management.

With the new year around the corner, I believe that it will be a better and ‘virtual’ world and universities should seize the opportunities this brings whilst managing the risks.

by Tiffany Cao Senior Associate, PwC United Kingdom

Email +44 (0)7841 102387

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