Many readers will be familiar with the ways that COVID-19 has impacted upon colleagues and students at universities; many will have experienced the challenges of uncertainty and confusion, of assisting and delivering the rapid migration to online teaching, of offering support while juggling other demands at home. We talked to Richard Watermeyer (University of Bristol) about the work of a WUN COVID-19 special grant award project that is leveraging the diversity of the network to study how these experiences have affected the wellbeing and mental health of students and staff in higher education across the world.
‘The overall sentiment that we saw through first-hand experience and heard anecdotally was panic,’ Richard Watermeyer reflected. When university staff members faced imminent and unfolding lockdown orders they confronted manifold challenges, from technical and practical issues, and supporting students, to managing other caring responsibilities and home schooling—all summed up in the feeling: ‘how do we begin to navigate this maelstrom?’
As societies around the world continue their diverse trajectories through the pandemic, Watermeyer and colleagues are investigating how the mental health and wellbeing of university staff and students have been affected by the coronavirus crisis. With international comparisons being crucial to the project’s design, connectivity through WUN has helped the group identify potential collaborators and ground the research effectively in the different country contexts.
The project combines a global survey with tailored editions, the latter anticipated for South Africa, India, and South Korea. WUN coordinators across the network have helped the group reach much wider audiences than if they’d been operating unilaterally. ‘Using WUN to promote the survey and distribute it has meant a significant uplift for us in terms of lifting the sample,’ Watermeyer commented. The group plans to do country-level analyses as well as comparative analyses, capitalising on ‘the advantages of it being an international research team not just an international research project.’
With regards to the experiences of students, the surveys take a broad approach, casting the impacts of COVID-19 in terms of welfare and wellbeing. The aim is to capture the experiences of under-represented groups and those students most at risk of discontinuing their studies. One focus will be the experiences of international students—an under-researched topic, according to Watermeyer, for multiple reasons including ‘issues of non-disclosure, cultural taboos, how mental health exhibits among populations where there are challenges of cultural dissonance and language differences,’ as well as a reluctance to air difficulties when fees from international students constitute an important revenue stream.
Prior to the launch of the WUN-supported project, research amongst British university staff has highlighted how, while some staff members welcomed the openness to new techniques necessitated by the crisis, many felt vulnerable to the simultaneous pressures of increased workload and decreased job security (Watermeyer et al 2020). The group’s research will also consider how inequalities and under-representation are shaping the experience of staff members, amplifying trends that pre-date COVID-19. For example, some editors of academic journals have reported a drop in the number of manuscript submissions from women during the pandemic and a rise in submissions from men. The research will consider the intersectionality of factors and themes like gender, racial or ethnic identity, precarity, casualisation, and professionalisation.
By mapping such experiences the group aims to inform governance and support for higher education communities at campus, government, and third-sector levels. Watermeyer emphasised their aim to create a longitudinal study: ‘we will collect some fantastic data through this WUN project, and it will be important to track this over coming years as we move from the emergency footing of crisis management to a long-term, perhaps permanent setting. What are the impacts going to be?’
Professor Richard Watermeyer is Principal Investigator of the research group examining the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of academics and students around the world. The project’s WUN partner institutions also include University of Cape Town, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, University College Dublin, and The University of Western Australia. For more information see their WUN page.