Work conditions at universities have eroded during the pandemic, report academics in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia in a recent survey.
One survey respondent used the term “pandemia,” which lead researcher Richard Watermeyer, professor of education at the University of Bristol, defines as “a set of conditions by which universities have, in some shape or form, exploited the goodwill of their academic community” during COVID.
Watermeyer and colleagues heard from roughly 2,600 academics around the world and are segmenting their results by country, including 1,099 survey results from academics in the UK, 370 in Australia, and 167 in Ireland. The researchers use the survey responses to characterize a common range of factors that constitute “pandemia.”
Watermeyer cites work intensification first, such as the added labor of moving courses online. Switching from teaching in person to online requires a “huge” amount of work if students are to remain engaged and enrolled.
Of the survey participants in the UK, 84% said the pandemic caused their work-life balance to suffer and 84% cited additional stress. Results in Australia were similar. Loneliness and isolation were also common among responses, write the researchers.
Although universities use research output as a core metric in evaluations of their faculty, 75% of the British respondents said their research took a backseat during the pandemic, and 64% said their universities had pivoted away from research and toward teaching, despite 66% of respondents working at “research-intensive” universities.
Respondents also cited the negative impact of caring for young children on their ability to conduct research. Several other studies have documented the disproportionate impact of child care on women academics, says Watermeyer. In Australia, 68% said the pandemic had “extended workplace inequalities.”
In the UK and Australia respectively, 84% and 69% of academics saw the pandemic result in greater centralization of decision making among senior leadership, and 60% of both groups said that they have lost professional autonomy. Further, 67% indicated that the “crisis was being used as a foil for exploitative practices,” such as more precarious forms of employment.
The overwhelming majority of survey respondents, 92% in the UK, rejected the idea that these changes were temporary. One Australian academic commented, “As staff have undertaken increased workloads in a short period of time and delivered quite well, the bar will remain at this new elevated level.”
The paper on academics in the UK also cites several respondents’ perceptions of hypocrisy on the part of university administrators who suggest “self-care” to employees without the luxury of spare time or energy.
Do the findings indicate any silver linings for academics during the pandemic? No, says Watermeyer, who attributes the changes to both the COVID crisis and universities’ ongoing investment in competition with rival institutions and an emphasis on financial growth. He attributes these changing conditions to a neoliberal bent in the administration of universities, something he argues began well before the pandemic. Respondents in all three arms of the study noted the same.
As for the future, Watermeyer asks, “How do we work to construct a future that places at its center the wellbeing and health of the entire community of people? Because any transformation of higher education needs to make sure that wellbeing and health are at its core.”
The research team has so far published three papers resulting from the survey, which they conducted with funding from the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). One paper, on survey responses from academics in the UK, appears in the British Journal of Sociology of Education. The paper on Ireland appears in Irish Educational Studies and the paper on Australia in Higher Education Research and Development.
Watermeyer and colleagues also have a paper on South Africa in peer review at the Journal of Higher Education Quarterly.
The WUN partner institutions for “The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of academics and students around the world” are the University of Bristol, the University of Cape Town, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and University College Dublin.