Three challenges facing academic research during the Covid-19 crisis

Research from a team at Henley Business School highlights the funding, time and location constraints on academic research during the pandemic 

June 12, 2020
Working late
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For almost all academics, the Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in a 100 per cent move to remote working. This has raised serious questions across the sector about the implications for teaching and for universities in the future, but what does it mean for scholarly work? To explore this further, we launched a research project looking at the impact of the pandemic on the working lives of academics. We have had responses from over 2,500 academics across the UK in the business, management and economic fields. Our preliminary findings have revealed three challenges faced by academic research in light of the lockdown.

The first is around income and funding priorities. The pandemic has dominated media coverage and we found that 43 per cent of the survey participants were themselves directly involved in work on the effects of the virus – including coordinating research. But a similar proportion of respondents (40 per cent) felt the pandemic has shifted research efforts away from other important issues. They felt it has undermined their confidence in applying for grants that are not focused on Covid-19 and are concerned that the extreme focus on the pandemic would mean less funding and attention for some of the other major challenges humanity faces.

The second challenge is around the amount of time colleagues can devote to research. The shift to online teaching and learning has meant an increased amount of time being devoted to teaching, assessment and administration, to ensure students continue to receive the best possible quality of education. With critical international fee income affected, both due to the pandemic and Brexit-induced falls in students from Europe, universities are feeling the pressure to get “bums on seats”.

The commitment to providing everything students need online means that time usually spent on research has had to take a back seat. Around three-quarters of academics (76 per cent) we spoke to felt online teaching was a lot more time-consuming to prepare, while about 40 per cent found online marking also took up more time.

The survey also revealed inequalities in the effect of remote working, with junior academics seeing a 5 per cent greater rise in the proportion of time devoted to teaching and assessment than their senior colleagues, who have been able, on average, to sustain the proportion of time they devote to research. This could impact on their career progression.

Meanwhile, childcare is a further time pressure (41 per cent of employees surveyed have children at home and two-thirds of them are spending more time on childcare). We believe the burden will be unevenly distributed on women, since, while we found that 15 per cent of parents were actually doing less childcare – due to assistance from partners and other members of the household – it was still the case that women were spending 50 per cent more time on childcare than their male counterparts.

That finding, and the finding that multidisciplinarity is being undermined for a number of participants, suggests that probation and promotion committees should explicitly account for Covid-19-related circumstances.

The third challenge is around the ability to conduct research remotely. Some kinds of research are impossible or need to change under lockdown due to their nature. Research involving established databases is easier than empirical evidence collected via interviews, which may require a change in research technologies; and ethnographic and archival research are clearly more problematic. Any tendency towards reinforcing a research mono-culture based around quantitative work is likely to be exacerbated, while undermining multidisciplinary research.

Unless steps are taken to ensure multidisciplinary research is supported, it could be set back for a decade. Over a quarter of academics surveyed (28 per cent) said their ability to access resources has been significantly affected by the lockdown.

However the impact of the lockdown on research activity is not negative for all – for some it has gifted them more time to spend on their work. Over a third (46 per cent) of survey respondents said lockdown has provided them with more time to “redraft work”. Anecdotally, a number of respondents said they felt far more productive and lockdown was the best thing to happen to their research.

Our research incorporates a broad set of business, management and economic faculty. As this is an area of academia that has traditionally engaged extensively with post-experience students and has been at the forefront of developing online delivery methods, we believe these colleagues are canaries in the coal mine for academics in other contexts where such remote work practices are introduced.

Understanding the differences in the impact of the pandemic lockdown on academic staff is the first step in enabling university managers and policymakers to make informed choices on the policies and practices they adopt to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, and to think about the longer-term impacts on the sector.

James Walker is director of research; Chris Brewster is a professor of human resources management; Rita Fontinha is a lecturer in strategic human resources management; Washika Haak-Saheem is an associate professor in human resources management at the Henley Business School at the University of Reading.

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