Richard Watermeyer

At least six ways COVID has crushed higher education (now university managers make it worse)

Even less work-life balance, anxiety around online skills, fears the pandemic will be used to crush academic autonomy and cut costs. And by the way, COVID hit academic women hard.

Our research found the onset of the pandemic produced unprecedented organisational challenges for the higher education sector globally. That has been widely documented. As part of research funded by the Worldwide Universities Network, we undertook a global attitudinal survey in June and July 2020 to identify the impact of universities’ response to the pandemic on academics’ wellbeing.

Our publication, forthcoming in the Higher Education Research and Development journal, reports findings from the survey specific to the Australian higher education context and presents stark results. One year on, many academic staff in Australia are again working remotely, having previously returned to campus, and are likely to be feeling significant strain.

From the 370 survey responses, key findings include: work-related stress due to COVID-19 (78% agreement); reduced work-life balance (77% agreement); and digital fatigue (78% agreement). In terms of university leadership and managerialism, 69% of respondents felt that COVID-19 had intensified top-down governance and 60% felt that it had weakened trust in university leaders. This was also implied in strong agreement (92%) with the statement ‘The COVID-19 crisis will be used by universities as a means to legitimise ‘cost-cutting’ initiatives (closing programmes/departments/making job cuts)’.  Responses to open-ended survey questions reflect frustration over the implications of government policies that have created a quasi-market model of higher education in Australia and the associated over-reliance on international students as an income source, severely impacted by the pandemic.  These political and sectoral conditions, combined with the pandemic, created the perfect storm, the effects of which have impacted on the wellbeing of staff, as supported by the survey data.

Although overall there were some similarities with findings from other countries, respondents generally commented primarily on their universities, university leadership and the higher education sector, and government treatment of the sector was a secondary theme.  In the UK for example, the government’s furlough scheme has been available to the university workforce although to what extent it supported the sector remains to be seen.  Our global findings have also noted the gendered impact of COVID on female academics.

Ultimately it is the sense of community that will suffer most.

Academic staff reported undermining of academic autonomy with regard to rigid requirements around online teaching but the potential for greater autonomy if some of the more flexible working arrangements were to be retained. Some respondents had concerns about their own competence in using online digital tools, and concerns that changes to teaching, such as online teaching, would negatively impact on student learning outcomes. Conversely, some noted that digital skills and confidence had rapidly been acquired during the pandemic. Online working was also perceived by some respondents to weaken relationships: ‘Ultimately it is the sense of community… that will suffer the most.’ Facing the possibility of more online teaching and remote working in future, a challenge for the sector is to foster and maintain meaningful relatedness with colleagues and others via digital technologies. Although most survey respondents did not report an improved sense of belonging within their institution, this gap was filled by a general sense of support from colleagues and line managers.

The need for effective leadership within the higher education sector has never been more apparent than during COVID-19, but as made clear by our respondents, government appears to have abandoned the sector and university leadership are seen to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce costs. Sadly, many of the predictions in the survey responses were quickly borne out, including redundancies, restructures, pay cuts, course cancellations and moves to fully online courses.

The move away from the physical campus was occurring incrementally across Australian campuses prior to COVID-19. For example, unlike the UK, mandatory lecture recording was already commonplace in Australia and many students do not attend lectures in-person as a result.  It seems likely that the pandemic will have accelerated this process, which will have implications for staff and student wellbeing that university leadership should anticipate.

So what further lessons can we learn from the pandemic and its impact on the higher education sector in Australia? First, it is clear that COVID-19 exacerbated existing issues with the neoliberal, marketised model and cannot be entirely blamed for the current crisis in the sector. Second, although government support of the sector — for example, the exclusion of JobKeeper supports — has been critically lacking during COVID-19, this is not out of step with recent policy trends in Australia. Third, the pandemic brought into sharp focus the sector’s strong reliance on the international education market, and the resulting impact on the Australian economy. The interconnected issues of marketisation, inadequate government support, reliance on (and treatment of) international students require robust discussion at a national level and a revised policy approach for the future. Fourth, the evidence from this study shows that university leaders must address the wellbeing needs of academic staff; not only through Employee Assistance Programs and other supports, but through reasonable and sustainable expectations.

Forthcoming article: 

Fiona McGaughey, Richard Watermeyer, Kalpana Shankar, Venkata Ratnadeep Suri, Cathryn Knight, Tom Crick, Joanne Hardman, Dean Phelan, Roger Chung This can’t be the new norm’: academics’ perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis for the Australian University Sector

*Corresponding author: 

From left to right: Fiona McGaughey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia Law School and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).  Fiona has broad research interests including international human rights law, modern slavery, pedagogy and student wellbeing.  Richard Watermeyer is Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of The Centre for Higher Education Transformations (CHET) in the School of Education at the University of Bristol. A sociologist of higher education his recent books include Competitive Accountability in Academic Life: The Struggle for Social impact and Public Legitimacy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) and the Impact Agenda: controversies, challenges and consequences. (Bristol: Policy press). Kalpana Shankar is a Professor of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin and co-director of the UCD Centre for Digital Policy.