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Pandemic is amplifying the toxic aspects of academia

Universities could be reforming—but many are doubling down on past mistakes, says Petra Boynton

On 30 April, the Higher Education Policy Institute released Pressure Vessels II, a report by Liz Morrish and Nicky Priaulx. It follows up on Morrish’s 2019 investigation into mental ill health in universities. 

The first report looked at data up to the 2015-16 academic year. Bringing the story up to 2018-19, Morrish and Priaulx found that mental distress had increased, particularly among women and professional services staff, with rising use of counselling and occupational health services. Things, in other words, were getting worse, and Covid-19 has placed an additional burden on an already stressed system.

In response to the pandemic, many universities are panicking, creating whirlwinds of unhelpful activity and micromanagement. Some staff are being required to complete daily registers, or prove they’re working with live video updates, which is farcical given the number of university servers that are crashing from demand.

Toxic academic practices—presenteeism, competitiveness, digital surveillance, poor supervision and a lack of trust—are allowing bullying and abuse to thrive. Some universities are pushing for “greater productivity”, telling staff on sick or parental leave that they can work because they are at home.

Some universities are urging staff to chase funding for Covid-19 projects, risking a glut of poor quality and potentially unpublishable research. Work on other topics is being neglected, or pushed online regardless of whether it is suited to the format, and with little awareness of the ethical, practical and theoretical underpinnings of online methodologies.

The psychological toll of lost opportunities, disbanded projects or cancelled events is significant. Rescheduled conferences may run online, but plans for future meetings are on hold. There will be redundancies and departmental closures. The pressure to be prolific, and the business-as-usual mentality, is baffling. Mental health will only worsen for those who are isolated, struggling with loneliness or caring for dependents. 

Pre-existing inequalities are magnified online. While some academics boast on social media about how much they’re getting done, others are becoming stressed by unfeasible targets. 

Staff and students who are poor or in precarious situations are inconvenienced further by working at home. Space, quiet, light, heat and time are privileges, not, as some management assume, universals.  

Universities have been slow to understand the difficulties of lockdown. The effects of the shift to home and online working are already keenly felt by academics and students alike. The rush to put courses online as rapidly as possible has sidestepped existing models of good practice and placed enormous strain on students and staff. 

Impossible juggling

Juggling a hectic live teaching session and home-schooling your own children is virtually impossible. Parents are having to choose between paid work or their children’s learning. Those who have children with special needs, and carers with dependents, are especially hard hit. How pointless those Athena Swan and other equality awards now seem.

Students and staff in need of care, especially those who relied on campus-based mental health support, are unlikely to get it during lockdown. The pandemic has created an additional need for bereavement care for those who have lost loved ones. 

Delivery of online support and therapy is limited by budgets, privacy and safety issues. The focus on moving teaching online has overshadowed pastoral care.

Campus closures have made some students homeless, with colleges slow to cover relocation costs. Disabled scholars, meanwhile, have expressed anger about how requests for accommodation that have been historically refused are suddenly deliverable when others need them. Even so, those remaining on campus are facing isolation and reduced services, such as catering. Estranged students lacking safe homes to return to have been put at risk.  

But there are some positives, even within the pandemic. Reduced travel is bringing environmental and financial benefits. The coping skills and strategies of marginalised students—particularly disabled and chronically sick scholars, international students and experienced online learners—are newly relevant and appreciated. 

Universities will likely be operating online until at least the end of 2020. Just as trying to teach as normal isn’t possible in a pandemic, research too has to change. We have the opportunity to embrace new ways of learning, sharing and collaborating. 

Many of the problems we are now facing in academia are due to the pandemic, but many began long ago. If we can begin to acknowledge the harms caused and set about dismantling them, we could begin to heal.

Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and research consultant, and author of The Research Companion: A Practical Guide for the Social and Health Sciences

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight