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26 May 2021

Life in ‘pandemia’: UK university staff perspectives on work during COVID-19


Richard Watermeyer
Centre for Higher Education Transformations, University of Bristol

Tom Crick
School of Education, Swansea University

Cathryn Knight
School of Education, Swansea University

The impact on the working lives of university staff, as a consequence of the ‘corporate response’ of institutional leadership to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been far from uniform and experiences have varied greatly.


Reflecting on our presentation at the 2021 QAA Annual Conference (and linking to its three themes of resilience, innovation and enhancement), our work over the past 15 months has captured and analysed the impact of COVID-19 on various educational settings and contexts - with a focus on understanding the effects of transition to remote working and institutional governance by crisis management. This has revealed commonalities yet also divergences in how university staff have been professionally and personally affected.


In the UK alone, we have surveyed more than 7,000 university employees comprising, academic faculty, learning technologists and professional service staff. Our respondents have spanned disciplines, career stages, institutional contexts, occupational roles, employment status, and social demographics.


In total, we have undertaken four surveys - two of which were international in scope. Our first two surveys were conducted at intervals in 2020 and targeted academics. The first, at the outset of the pandemic, was an effort to identify academics’ experiences of rapid emergency online migration. The second, in early summer, was an attempt to locate how work-based transformation resulting from institutional responses to the pandemic was affecting academics’ mental and physical wellbeing.


Our third survey, undertaken in late summer, sought to identify the perspectives of learning technologists working in UK universities as a specialist group, whose role and contribution within their institutions has, for obvious reasons, gained prominence, yet whose voice was largely absent from discussions concerning substantial changes to learning, teaching and assessment, as well as wider institutional life. Finally, just over a month ago we launched a survey of professional services staff working in UK universities and questioning their experiences of working life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to this survey, the distribution of which was greatly facilitated by associated trade unions and a variety of related membership organisations, vastly exceeded our expectations and returned more than 4,500 responses.


Across these representative datasets we have surfaced a range of perspectives that tell us much about how challenging working life for university staff has been during the pandemic, an experience common to most, if not all, workforces. Specifically, we have seen narratives of disrepair in institutional relationships and working dynamics, between faculty and senior university leadership especially; of the proliferation of undemocratic forms of governance; exploitative work practices and deprofessionalisation; and of how a combined and escalated strain of work intensification and precarisation. Inter and intra-institutional hyper-competitiveness and the burden of performance management are injurious to the occupational welfare and physical health and wellbeing of those working within universities.


Moreover, we have captured perspectives that highlight how universities in the UK are perhaps less than well equipped - certainly when compared to other international higher education systems - to tackle the changes not so much borne out by, but accelerated by, the pandemic. In particular, those that relate to the era of the fourth industrial revolution and continued global transformation by digital technologies.


The economic sustainability of universities - and the occupational survival of their staff - in such context has emerged in tandem, as a major concern. This follows an historical criticism of universities as slow evolvers and as organisations that are resistant to change; even now in a contemporary context where a diversifying marketplace and the challenge posed by private sector entities as new market entrants are eroding their monopoly over higher education provision in the UK.


Our academic respondents have spoken of universities in the UK being in a state of ‘pandemia’ and of institutional leaders making unilateral decisions in respect of institutional cost-cutting or more specifically, staff retrenchment. This has been justified and reinforced by UK central government as a legitimate and necessary measure of crisis mediation. Alongside REF 2021 submissions being first delayed and then refined and finalised over the pandemic period, a clear majority of our academic respondents have articulated not only concerns of job insecurity and of the pandemic exacerbating a trend of work casualisation in universities, but that universities’ deprioritisation of research (unless explicitly COVID-19 related) during the pandemic has jeopardised their positions and ‘competitive accountability’, where their productive capacity has been severely restricted.


The coupling of work anxiety, related to potential job loss, with an abundance of reports pointing to work intensification as a consequence of online migration, and attributed to an exponential increase in demands (academic, pastoral and administrative) from students, contributes to a story of academics ‘burning out’; of chronic digital fatigue, demotivation and succumbing to the effects of work-related stress. We have also found that such deleterious effects are unevenly distributed and experienced by those already most vulnerable and least protected, such as BAME, female and early-career academics. Prognoses for career development and progression, for the latter especially, are reported to be especially gloomy.


Accounts provided by learning technologists working in UK universities are not dissimilar from their academic counterparts. Instead, we have encountered a parallel story of work-based frenzy, fatigue and frustration. So too, have we found complaints of weak role articulation, historical undervaluing, power imbalances and institutional marginalisation. Yet we have also heard tales of learning technologists being plunged front and centre of institutional attempts for crisis remediation, with the rapid adaptation and potentially ill-considered implementation of various educational technologies; and more so, efforts to exploit the pandemic for commercial gain and in the organisational resetting of the new digital frontier for tertiary education.


Much of our analysis of the perspectives of professional service staff is nascent. However, we are able to report on an emerging and further troubling dynamic. While a majority of our survey respondents reported that a transition to remote working has had no negative impact on their ability to do their job - in fact a quarter of respondents stated that it had enhanced their ability - and that remote working had increased their productivity, a similar majority also stated that such changes had negatively impacted their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Notwithstanding, a vast majority of respondents stated their preference for a hybrid approach to future working.


There exists, therefore, a complex even antagonistic interplay of the impacts of work reorganisation brought about by the pandemic and the closure of university campuses, which on one hand appear beneficial to the productive capacity of professional service staff and yet on the other are detrimental to their personal welfare. Another stand-out finding is that unlike the accounts provided by our academic respondents who largely condemned what they saw as the corporate response of university leaders, the majority of our professional service staff respondents were much more favourable in their judgement of the handling of the pandemic by university senior leaders.


In the round, our consultation of the UK’s community of university staff during the pandemic has revealed much in the way of a frailty of mood and an erosion of trust in university leadership - mainly from academics, and a sense of academic freedom and autonomy further ceded, and professional and personal need, neglected. This is alongside ongoing disruptive changes to UK and devolved-level policy, practice and indeed sustainable funding models for research and innovation, learning and teaching, as well as wider civic mission ambitions for UK higher education institutions. This external disconnect and weakening of ties may also be related to universities as habitually reactive as opposed to proactive organisations, and organisations that privilege considerations of finance (and prestige) over a duty of human care.


The pandemic has further pressed home an account of universities as internally conflicted and as habitually inchoate and polarised communities in urgent need of reconciliation and a re-rationalisation that places staff at its heart, with an acknowledgement of roles, responsibilities and ambitions that go beyond key performance indicators and league table performance.