This blog was kindly contributed by two-time HEPI paper author and independent scholar, Dr Liz Morrish. You can find Liz on Twitter @lizmorrish.
It is clear to anyone reading the press coverage this year that, during the pandemic, universities have become even more pressured places to work. As well as the stress of the sudden ‘pivot’ to online teaching and further impositions on over-extended workloads, we see almost daily reports of course and departmental closures and hundreds of redundancies. The effect of metrics is being felt in a much more acute way as calamitous news is justified with statistics on undergraduate applications or research income. But sometimes these decisions seem to be made without any obvious precipitating cause. Distinguished departments of modern languages, history and archaeology are being axed with reasoning like ‘well, everyone else is doing it’. We see scholars being selected for redundancy because their grant income falls beneath some arbitrary quartile. Others are being subject to a form of ideological cleansing because their work is so thoroughly interdisciplinary that it resonates outside of their own discipline – a success perversely read as failure to demonstrate mainstream orthodoxy.
One mid-career senior lecturer, in a thread about academic redundancies on Facebook, commented:
It seems to me that there is no appreciation of the mental health burden, on all staff, of threatening staff … In the 3 redundancy rounds I have observed people who previously seemed to thrive on the usual stress of academia fall apart under threat. Also, a few times now people who thought they would be OK again after they were told they were no longer at risk have just mentally collapsed and needed time off. I think a big factor was that many people felt the pressure and stress of the redundancies.
Redundancies have upset the delicate balance of trust between employer and employee. As well as a pandemic crisis, there is a crisis of managerial overreach. Academics who have invested in ever-specialised training and research will feel aggrieved to be told their work is no longer valued. To develop the department’s curriculum in line with your expertise now carries the risk of making you less employable elsewhere or vulnerable to de-funding, even when you have been successful in acquiring research grants. When well-regarded and accomplished scholars are cast aside, some at professorial or head of department level, it leads more junior colleagues to wonder whether that institution deserves their own loyalty. It seems shocking that universities are so willing to jettison the asset that is most highly valued by students – their staff. Perhaps we should ask why marketing departments aren’t taking a greater share of the blame for failing to sell the university’s ‘product’.
It is not just redundancies this year which have taken a toll on mental health. An article by Lizzie Nixon and Robert Scullion notes that ‘the university, too, is a most emotional arena’, and documents the rise of emotional labour under marketisation in universities in which a charged relationship has developed between the anxious student navigating an uncertain future and the all-too-responsible lecturer as customer service provider. In turn, managing student anxiety has multiplied the emotional toll on the lecturer. We can imagine how much this has intensified over the past year and in circumstances in which students, quite understandably, have felt disoriented and alone.
Other pressures this year have resulted from differences of perceived hazard associated with the ‘covid-safe campus’. Despite forewarnings from the US and the growing recognition that Covid is not spread by buildings but by people, universities went ahead with in-person teaching in the autumn of 2020, under government duress. Predictably, Covid infections spread rapidly in halls of residence and in off-campus social spaces.
Staff were then faced with pressure from management to work in an environment where the risk from indoor aerosol transmission was known about, but the recommended mitigation was via social distancing. This offered indemnity against litigation, but not against a sense of betrayal by staff. As each university flaunted its biosecurity protocols on the website, the inadequacy of these was dubbed ‘hygiene theatre’. By analogy, managers’ response to claims of stress in the form of online wellness training could be termed ‘wellness theatre’. Universities are still very much the anxiety machines described in Pressure Vessels I, 2019. Staff continue to function with what has been labelled high-functioning anxiety, but it not acceptable to require medication in order to do a job.
Online teaching has been another source of overload. A professor of physics at a Russell Group university, teaching a new module this year, estimated that it required 400% more effort to develop and teach than a traditional, face-to-face course (personal communication). While online teaching offers some advantages, it levies yet another claim on the overstretched time budget allocated by the workload model.
None of this is to overlook the equally demanding picture of higher education confronting vice chancellors and their management teams who are trying to operate within a system of marketization that has failed to save costs and installed some damaging consequences. They are gazing into a future of potential fee reductions, defunding of the arts and humanities, interest repayments on estate renewal, fewer overseas students, competition from FE and a body of employees protesting a range of issues from pension contributions to job insecurity.
The Pressure Vessels reports of 2019 and 2020 were well received by front line academics. However, I have not been able to find evidence that many of the recommendations have been implemented. Working from home, aka ‘distributed working’ may signal a turn to a higher-trust environment – one of the recommendations in the report (2019, p.47).
There is much talk of re-imagining higher education, and all factions can agree that there is much that needs changing. But, whereas higher education leaders may envisage a digitally enabled university, unbundling its courses in an international marketplace, others may have a broader agenda for reform. I would like to see a dialogue about the purpose of universities and the structures needed to support their mission. Universities are not consultancies, working to external briefs in the gig economy. Researchers do apply their work to everyday practical problems, but there needs to be space for this to materialize from speculative ideation. We must ask, if universities cannot provide the security to test new ideas, then where should these activities take place? There is an urgent need, in the context of the current situation of pandemic, managerial and market-driven crisis, for a course correction. At the top of the list is the restoration of academic tenure as the most likely way to safeguard academic freedom, job security and the integrity of UK universities.