The pandemic’s profound but uneven impacts require both local and sector-wide action, says Petra Boynton
This will be the third academic year affected by Covid-19. University staff and students are prepared for a mix of in-person and (now familiar) online learning.
The opportunity for some face-to-face teaching and learning will be especially welcomed by those in arts and science subjects that involve practical classes, although people vulnerable and shielding remain understandably anxious and uncertain about whether their universities will safeguard them.
Universities’ and funders’ responses to the pandemic have proved mixed. Some recognised that teaching models, research practices and workloads had to adjust. In others, managers tried to continue with ‘business as usual’ at a time when nothing was normal—and in doing so, they widened existing inequalities and barriers.
Anecdotally, many staff report going into the new term feeling unmotivated and exhausted, unappreciated and overworked. This is a poisonous mix with which to begin another uncertain academic year, and universities that fail to recognise this may struggle in the months ahead.
Postgraduate students, who have been particularly disadvantaged by the pandemic, continue to lobby for better assistance, tuition and supervision, including funded extensions for those whose work has been restricted. Some universities have provided training designed to assist study and career progression, although postgrads continue to report feeling marginalised and neglected.
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, parents and carers. Fieldwork, site visits, lab work and practice-based study in the arts have been interrupted, postponed or abandoned. Early career researchers have struggled to progress with their training, development and job-seeking.
Precarity has worsened, and some university departments face widespread redundancies or closure. Some academics, meanwhile, have used lockdowns to steal a march on their colleagues in terms of output, creating disparities that evaluations might exacerbate.
These profound but uneven effects on mental health, work-life balance, precarity, bullying and equality should be common knowledge by now. They shaped the government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy, published in July.
Against a backdrop of overstretched mental health services, universities have been expected to provide pastoral care beyond their skills and remits. Some attempts to offer short-term fixes for mild to moderate mental distress, such as a link to a wellbeing webinar, have felt derisory to staff and students.
In an effort to improve the understanding of and support for student mental health, the Office for Students recently awarded £3 million to projects at 18 institutions. Such initiatives are vital, but they need care. Student satisfaction surveys, for example, can provide an essential measure of experience and need during a difficult time, but many academics found negative and hostile feedback distressing at the end of a debilitating year in which they had to shift their working patterns and provide increased pastoral care.
Predictably, precarious staff and those from underrepresented groups bear the brunt of negative feedback, which sometimes crosses into hate. We should be questioning the ethics of running student surveys that could be weaponised against staff.
Making a success of this academic year will require a combination of sector-wide and local initiatives touching on every aspect of higher education and research.
Universities should be running vaccination programmes and encouraging uptake. There should be efforts to promote regular testing, room ventilation and mask use, and the option of remote and online working for those who are shielding or vulnerable.
Students and staff need mentoring programmes on research and study skills, building confidence and managing work-life balance. Study skills, classroom expectations and the importance of preparedness may need more in-depth explanations and regular repetition. First-year undergraduates may be experiencing more imposter syndrome than usual, owing to uncertainty around their assessed grades or because they have been disadvantaged by teacher assessments.
Underpinning all this must be an acknowledgement of the pandemic’s impact on finances, relationships and health. Some students and staff will be anxious about returning to in-person learning. Some will have been isolated; others will have been living with family and may find independent living challenging.
Those estranged from their families, mature students, disabled, neurodivergent and chronically sick students, including those with long Covid, international students and those who have been bereaved may have been especially affected by the pandemic.
A continual sense of danger and uncertainty will have left some numb and others in permanent fight-or-flight mode. The fear of ‘what next?’ is debilitating, so any changes, innovations or interventions should be appropriate, accessible, timely and clearly explained.
The use of a recovery syllabus—a focused programme that acknowledges the impact of the pandemic while building responses into teaching, learning and pastoral care—could be especially beneficial. Care and information must be offered, as not everyone will feel able to ask for help.
These are huge challenges, but the pandemic has also created opportunities. Universities have a chance to rethink how they assess, teach, write, examine and undertake research. This should involve creating rapidly evolving resources and curricula that speak to where we are now while being realistic about continuing restrictions and impacts. The lessons could be applied to research into—and care for students affected by—climate change, natural disasters and refugee crises.
If there is any lesson of the past two academic years, it is to expect the unexpected. With luck, the coming academic year will go smoothly, but we should be prepared for disruption—and appreciate that Covid-19 will continue to affect students and staff for years to come.
Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and research consultant, and author of The Research Companion: A Practical Guide for the Social and Health Sciences.
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight