Toxic corporate culture in universities needs uprooting

The quality of working life in United Kingdom universities is in sharp decline. A steep slope erosion has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic amidst the experience of ‘pandemia’ and a hyper-managerialist response to the innumerable challenges of campus closures that has left many university staff feeling irreparably disaffected and as if the whole edifice of higher education has imploded.

Where university staff were already at a low ebb, massive labour intensification experienced with a rapid emergency transitioning to online working and compounded by a sense of profound institutional neglect and distrust of university leaders has hastened the exit of many chronically fatigued academics and professional services staff.

Emotionally and mentally burnt out staff who are no longer willing to tolerate or for that matter seek the redress of impoverished working conditions through collective action – the UK remains gripped by industrial action and a current marking and assessment boycott – suggests that predictions of a mass exodus appear to be taking effect.

Through an extensive body of research begun at the onset of the pandemic and a health-test of UK university staff and their endeavours to convert online, we have sought to document the experience of the pandemic in the Global North and South and a variety of international higher education settings, such as Australia and South Africa, and, furthermore, according to different types of university staff including, for instance, learning technologists.

We have also studied how university staff are adjusting, post-COVID, to a new (at least partially) remote work paradigm and how the pandemic has provided the ultimate conditions to cement higher education's neoliberalisation.

Collectively, these studies have made unambiguous the disconsolations of a workforce whose resolve and resilience is on the wane. However, less apparent has been what has ultimately driven them to relinquish their posts.

Consequently, in September 2022 we launched a national UK survey targeting academic and professional services staff to understand why they were either seriously thinking about leaving or had left their university jobs since the start of the pandemic. Of 781 respondents, 269 had left their university posts. A total of 157 of these were academics, 82 were professional services staff and 10 had mixed roles; five identified as ‘other’.

We focus here on the academic respondents as the larger constituency, the majority of whom were in the ‘associate professor’ band and were on open-ended contracts. Ten of these respondents had been heads of department. Fourteen had held other senior leadership positions. The sample also included two pro-vice chancellors. ‘Social studies’ was the most represented disciplinary area.

Why are they leaving?

Their reasons for leaving UK higher education are manifold but coalesce around three major themes.

First, is a work-based culture which permits and fails to address or sanction a prevalence of bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination within universities, yet which features aggressive policing and corporate surveillance of staff (performance) that conflict with aspirations for universities to be compassionate, kind and respectful places of work: “I left for the sake of my health and my family. I could no longer tolerate being harassed, bullied, gaslighted and discriminated against.”

Secondly, and directly linked to the perceived insidiousness of working culture in UK universities, is a view of toxic and ‘Teflon’ management, and the freedom ordained to managerial elites to exercise power with impunity.

A crisis of leadership in universities is furthermore attributed by respondents to a prevalence of cronyism and affordances of ‘chumocracy’, insulating and sustaining low-quality leaders, whose actions and decisions were frequently considered to be born of corporate (self)interest and anathema to the welfare and wellbeing of staff: “There are some extremely toxic individuals in the university who are fully supported by other toxic management staff.”

Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the scale of recent industrial action by academics in the UK, a combined issue of poor pay, diminished pensions and a sparsity of opportunities for career progression was reported by our respondents as contributing to their leaving academia.

A wake-up bomb

A focus on toxic corporate culture is arguably nothing new nor without correlation to other job sectors where a so-called ‘great resignation’ spurred on by the pandemic finds equal attribution.

Yet the pandemic has played a major part in tipping the scales of what university staff are willing, or rather are no longer willing, to stomach. The pandemic in such terms has served as a wake-up bomb and, as our respondents claimed, has “probably awoken many people who thought they were happy or just happy to endure the nonsense”.

Ultimately, our survey reveals a severely dejected coterie of academic staff no longer willing to accept what they perceive as punitive work regimes; the absence of an ethics of care within universities other than perhaps through collegiality (amidst crisis); the non-accountability among senior managers and dereliction of leadership; and the abuses of unyielding systemic inequality – aspects of working in UK higher education which the pandemic has seemingly accentuated and made impossible to ignore.

Complex contexts

Yet while the pandemic, or what we’ve called ‘pandemia’, has made indisputable the gravity of these grievances, there are other contexts that cannot be ignored.

We count, for instance, the financial instability of the sector and threat of its contraction, university closures and major job losses; a hostile policy environment and an incumbent government none too enamoured with universities; the Brexit legacy; and of course, the frankly immeasurable challenge of technological disruption and the inexorable insertion of generative AI into the working lives of university staff.

These are contexts of great complexity for which any kind of leadership action is liable to court the displeasure and disapproval of affected staff.

We should also not forget that there are many academics working in UK universities who are forced to stay and endure the disorientations of a seemingly endless downward spiral. These are those too deeply embedded within higher education, too far institutionalised and elsewhere unemployable.

There are also those, of course, with inexhaustible commitment and/or eternal optimism, who choose to stay and persevere despite the abundance of challenges listed here, challenges they may perceive to be even more pronounced and egregious in other job sectors.

It is worth noting that among the destinations of those in our survey who have left working in UK higher education, the greatest number (46%) are now either self-employed or working in another sector. Yet to make this transition requires an aptitude for reinvention, the crafting of new professional identity and a willingness to risk the perils of boundary crossing – traits typically uncommon among academics, not least those who in our survey were mainly mid-career and established.

A crisis of leadership

Our survey confirms much of what is wrong in UK higher education that is causing academics (and professional service staff) to leave. While many factors are external and beyond the direct control of universities to influence, a crisis of leadership, seemingly centre-stage to the majority of academic vitriol and motivation for leaving higher education, is not.

Toxic corporate culture within universities needs uprooting; an ethics of care and equity must be progressed beyond tokenistic soundbites and translated into tangible returns; managers must be held to account; and an investment in leadership (across all levels, roles and dimensions of universities) is urgently needed to avoid the tragedy of further landslide.

Such corrections require a whole community effort and a commitment to leadership as a heavy responsibility, if not burden, shared by all citizens of the UK's higher education community and moreover its stakeholders. So doing is essential to arresting the further degradation of UK higher education and the prospect of ongoing staff attrition.

Richard Watermeyer is professor of higher education and co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations (CHET) at the University of Bristol, UK. Richard Bolden is professor of leadership and management and director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre (BLCC) at the University of the West of England, UK. Fahdia Khalid is a lecturer in organisational studies at the University of the West of England, UK. Cathryn Knight is a senior lecturer in psychology of education at the University of Bristol, UK.