COVID cuts, casualisation create rising stress for staff

The impact of mass forced redundancies and non-renewal of employment contracts has proved highly stressful for academics and tutors in Australia and New Zealand, according to research led by Megan Lee of Southern Cross University, Australia.

The higher education workforce has been “literally decimated” during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 17,000 academics having lost their jobs at Australian universities, and still further cuts likely as the nation’s border remains closed to international students.

But the pandemic-related turmoil comes on top of years of casualisation, new management techniques and other factors putting academics under increased pressure.

“And now some disciplines and academics who committed their lives to teaching feel publicly invalidated and unnecessary in the reconstruction of the sector to produce what the government deems to be ‘job-ready graduates’,” the researchers say.

The analysis by researchers in Australia and New Zealand*, “Occupational stress in university academics in Australia and New Zealand”, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, found that academics in the two countries were suffering high levels of occupational stress well before COVID-19.

“Recent upheavals only added to existing problems. This is likely to jeopardise recruitment and retention of staff even in the very areas, such as health, teaching and medicine, where the government expects high future demand,” the researchers write in The Conversation.

They note that the Australian government’s 2021-22 budget “only added salt to universities’ [COVID wounds]” by failing to provide the resources academics need to perform their work as teachers and researchers.

Budget adds to stress

In a commentary on the federal budget also published in The Conversation, Australian National University Professor Andrew Norton said university research is facing a crisis with no real precedent.

“Australia’s research boom was fuelled by the profits on international students that are now disappearing,” Norton says.

“It was helped by some domestic undergraduate courses making profits, but ‘Job-ready Graduates’ will require that money to be spent on new student places instead.”

In last year’s 2020 budget, the government injected an extra AU$1 billion (US$734 million) into its research block grant programme, effectively doubling it for a year.

As Norton notes, the goal was to ease the financial pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of international student fee revenue.

But, as he says, if Australia’s borders were to be re-opened to international students in the second half of 2021 or in early 2022, the fees they paid the universities would have meant there was not a strong case for another AU$1 billion from government.

In any case, unless safe travel zones on the New Zealand model open for major international student source countries, the federal budget indicates there will be no great increase in numbers until mid-2022.

“With the temporary research grant increase not offered again in [the federal] budget, university research output will inevitably decline significantly,” Norton says.

“There are no major public funding increases on offer, other than for research infrastructure from 2023-24 – after the international student market is expected to be in a recovery phase.”

Main sources of stress

The review of university teaching staff over the past 20 years found five key factors contributed to stress and distress among academics:

• Balancing teaching and research workloads.

• Lack of job security in an increasingly casualised workforce, with more than seven in every 10 academics at some universities employed as casuals.

• The challenges of switching from being a professional to an academic in applied disciplines – for example, a shift-working nurse taking on a teaching role at a university.

• Academics having to work after hours and on weekends to manage their workload and meet performance indicators for research and teaching (including student feedback scores).

• The effect of universities adopting ‘new public management’, which involves managers attempting to keep tight control over staff.

The review says many academics believe they are facing tighter managerial control and greater surveillance. Every facet of their role is subject to oversight and regulation, the researchers say.

The great changes in technology have contributed to this situation because although technology can enhance or extend educational experience online, it is also increasingly used to monitor and manage performance, the researchers add.

They argue that universities that have embraced performance management have also reduced the professional autonomy of academic teaching staff and demanded increased productivity, yet also have the lowest rates of job satisfaction.

As a result, the satisfaction that Australian academics feel about their jobs and their institution’s management is “very low compared to other countries”.

And the students?

The review highlights a problem arising from performance, promotion and continuing tenure of academics being directly linked to measures of student satisfaction and success, leaving academics torn between trying to keep students happy while ensuring academic standards are met.

At the same time university managers appear to neglect the impact on academics’ well-being and reputation of negative feedback from student surveys – which may include anonymous student comments, some of them hurtful.

The researchers quote one respondent who talked of seeing colleagues “go through a post-traumatic stress disorder of sorts when evaluation swings around”.

Added pressure stems from the increasingly competitive research environment, the researchers found.

*Southern Cross University’s Megan Lee, academic tutor and PhD candidate in the faculty of health; Dima Nasrawi, lecturer in nursing; Marie Hutchinson, professor of nursing; and Richard Lakeman, senior lecturer, health and human sciences.