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.”

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