Pandemia: COVID-19’s heavy toll on the lives of academics

Surveys of academic staff administered across Australia, Ireland, South Africa and the United Kingdom make explicit the impacts of universities’ responses to the pandemic on their working lives. From these studies comes the concept of pandemia, a state common to all: the experience of working in universities during COVID-19 and the personal and professional toll of so doing.

Pandemia describes and explains the impact of universities’ ‘corporate’ response to the pandemic on academic staff and provides a conceptual lens through which to comprehend the potentially transformative effects of the global crisis on the higher education community and higher education’s value proposition.

There is much commonality and overlap to be found in the experience of pandemia across the four country settings. Survey respondents routinely articulated how their home institutions had pursued an aggressively business-like approach to managing the pandemic, which disregarded concerns of staff welfare and well-being.

The vast majority of respondents discussed, through open-text survey responses, how rapid emergency transition to online working had resulted in severe work intensification. Such an escalation of work demands, however, was said to have occurred without appropriate recognition or response from within universities, where it was treated as a matter of individual responsibility.

The absence of an ethics of care in universities, matched with unrelenting performance demands – from which the pandemic offered no hiatus – was consequently linked by respondents to a widespread, yet unequally experienced deterioration of academics’ physical and mental health, burnout and staff attrition.

One academic commented: “COVID has intensified workload inequity as the problem of the individual. There is a lack of creative response to this crisis … we are trying to do the same things with fewer resources instead of rethinking, pulling back and re-doing. Our competitive ethos is a huge problem.”

Disaster capitalism?

Institutional responses to the pandemic were also regularly compared to “disaster capitalism” and a sense that university leaders were utilising the crisis to push through corporate agendas.

Respondents, for instance, spoke of how the pandemic was being used by management elites in universities to justify the extension of their power base and corresponding marginalisation of academic staff from decision-making processes.

Equally, crisis conditions were discussed for legitimising exploitative work practices.

One academic said: “In my department, the ‘moral imperative’ of helping the COVID cause has been used to manipulate workers into accepting unreasonable demands in terms of workloads and deadlines. As a result, my well-being has deteriorated to the point that I have quit my job with nothing else to go to. I expect I am not alone.”

Across the board, respondents described their sense of feeling ever more vulnerable in a sector where job precarity is a systemic problem. Yet, crucially, pandemia was seen to represent the continuation of an existing downward trend for academics.

One person stated: “The COVID crisis is not creating new problems so much as it is exposing problems – insecurity, exploitation, managerialism, unreasonable expectations, erosion of pay and conditions, threats to academic freedom – that have been steadily growing for very many years.”

The experience of institutional life under COVID was described as just another chapter of academic struggle and defeat, the fading allure and atrophy of the academic profession.

Said one: “COVID and the demands of working digitally have shone the spotlight on what was already broken. And at the end of all of this, the people left suffering won’t be students and they won’t be university bank balances. They will be undervalued and overworked academics with no job security and certainty in employment.”

Government apathy and increased managerialism

Respondents’ accounts are peppered with feelings of neglect, abandonment and remonstration against abuses of power. In the Australian context, respondents discussed the apathy and hostility shown by their national government to universities and a failure to support a higher education system financially dependent on the unobstructed flow of international students.

One academic stated: “In Australia the COVID-19 crisis has been used by the federal government to justify alterations (read reductions) to university funding while at my institution it has been used to ‘gloss over’ previous and ongoing issues of mismanagement.”

Government apathy in these accounts is presented as the reason for the hardening of a corporate approach to the management of Australian universities and university leaders’ eschewal of concerns for staff welfare.

In Ireland, pandemia is represented as part of a longstanding “crisis trajectory” that sees universities prioritising productive efficiency and market competitiveness over the well-being of staff.

In South Africa, the situation for academics is perhaps even more desolate. In a country with mass poverty and a failing power grid, the impact of pandemia is especially grave, yet equally undifferentiated from the accounts provided in Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom, where the pandemic is similarly attributed to increased workplace inequality, intensified managerialism and cost-cutting measures that render academic staff ever more at risk.

The resurgence of collegiality

Yet despite, if not, because of a prevalent cynicism of ‘absent’ leadership, we find academics in all four countries claiming a resurgence of collegiality and camaraderie. The strengthening of collective identity and mission – in the South African context discussed as ‘ubuntu’ – is rationalised as the response and tonic to pandemia.

In the instance of not being ‘noticed’ by their leaders, academics are reported to find solace and resolve by recognising foremost their role and responsibility to each other, which in one case is described as lifesaving.

They said: “I had a breakdown and became suicidal. The university couldn’t care less. They steamroller us. If it wasn’t for my awesome colleagues, I’m not sure what would have happened.”

As a result of campus closures, digital platforms were also recognised by respondents for facilitating alternative and more expansive forms of collegial interactions, uninhibited by constraints of time or place.

Pandemia in panorama

In total, pandemia makes explicit the manifold wicked problems of higher education and the urgency of their redress. We find further evidence of staff precarisation linked especially to job casualisation and the further intensification of an already highly competitive academic labour market.

Concurrently, if almost paradoxically, workforce attrition is reported, and, in the United Kingdom especially, the diaspora of academic talent’s move to other ‘more favourable’ international higher education settings (linked also to Brexit). Pandemia is also linked to an exacerbation of workplace inequality, a mental health crisis among students and staff and a breakdown of trust in university leaders.

Yet, pandemia is also represented as a clarion call for a different kind of leadership, a leadership that is values-based, consultative and shared, and that – at the most senior levels – is unafraid to confront the political hostility of populist governments.

As expressed by one respondent, the pandemic presents a staging post for renewal: “Just as in politics, very weak senior leadership (which was only focused on commercialisation or bureaucratisation of higher education in a very narrow and vulgar manner) and its impact were abundantly exposed by COVID-19 in my own institution, and while that in itself is quite disconcerting, I very much hope this will lead to a change in leadership (and leaders) and a new start.”

A pathway beyond?

At a time when the contribution of higher education is so uncertain and contested, focusing on the treatment of those who form its engine and the insouciance of their leaders could not be more urgent.

A continuation of the neglect experienced over the course of the last two years – and long before these – will surely otherwise result in the further degradation of academic staff, a result that even disaster capitalists will not profit from.

The disruption of pandemia may, however, be leveraged in establishing a positive reset for higher education, with the renewal of an ethics of care within universities and the espousal of human-centric leadership providing just the start.

Richard Watermeyer is professor of education at the Centre for Higher Education Transformations, University of Bristol, United Kingdom. E-mail: This article was first published in the current issue of International Higher Education. Many of the arguments put forward in this article are expanded upon in Watermeyer, R et al (2021) ‘Pandemia’: A reckoning of UK universities’ corporate response to COVID-19 and its academic fallout. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 42(5–6), 651–666.