Many people imagine universities to be calm and relaxed places of work, populated by academics who have long holidays, small workloads and obsessions with obscure subjects. But our new research paints a very different picture. Together with a recent report from the Wellcome Trust, our work reveals that academics feel incredible amounts of stress, and report harassment, bullying and widespread job insecurity.
We conducted a survey to assess university staff’s satisfaction with their senior managers. We had more than 5,500 responses and the results highlight many of the issues academics are currently facing.
In the main, academics expressed their discontentment at how in recent years, more and more metrics – measures of performance, productivity and quality – have been introduced in UK universities, and how these are then used as supposed evidence for the need to change academic practices. Academics in our survey felt this had generated an audit culture where many things are measured, but few things are valued.
Our survey also asked university staff for their thoughts on how senior management actions impact students, university values, performance, work pressure and the wellbeing and treatment of staff. We used this data to produce a national league table of senior management teams.
It showed a mean satisfaction score across UK higher education institutions of 11%. The highest ranking institution, the University of Oxford, scored 37%, while three institutions scored 0%. Such consistently low scores across the sector suggest that many teaching and research staff are unhappy and have lost confidence in the way their institutions are being run.
As well as collecting data to construct the league table, we offered participants the opportunity to provide comments on their experiences. We collected and analysed more than 2,400 written comments and a number of major themes emerged.
The comments highlighted how staff felt they had an excessive workload and a lack of voice. Academics also highlighted a perceived lack of senior management accountability and priority given to what were seen as vanity projects, such as new buildings or international campuses outside the UK. Senior management was repeatedly described as “distant”, “uncaring” and even “inhumane”.
A large number of academics also reported that the actions of senior managers were having a negative effect on their, and their colleagues’, mental health.
Research culture taking toll
Many of the findings from our survey echo what was also highlighted in the latest Wellcome Trust report, What Researchers Think About The Culture They Work In, published in January 2020. This report specifically focused on the research sector, the vast majority of which is located inside universities.
The report found that 78% of researchers think that high levels of competition have created unkind and aggressive conditions. It also found that 61% of researchers have witnessed bullying or harassment and 43% have experienced it themselves. Just 37% said they felt comfortable speaking up, with many doubting appropriate action would be taken. And 57% of researchers that responded said they had sought, or wanted to seek, professional help for depression or anxiety.
Senior managers of universities have a duty of care to their staff, but our results highlight how many academics working in universities feel this care is absent. This must be addressed urgently, particularly given that other research has found academics and students are reporting more mental health problems and that many academics feel overworked and isolated. This is important because, as centres of learning, universities set examples for the rest of society – and happy academics help to set the stage for happy students.
Mark Erickson, Reader in Sociology, University of Brighton; Carl Walker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Brighton, and Paul Hanna, Research Director, Clinical Psychology, University of Surrey