Academics at lower-ranked universities ‘have poorer well-being’

Scholars report higher levels of depressive symptoms and social withdrawal

March 2, 2017
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Crisis of confidence: scholars from lower-ranked institutions reported higher levels of guilt and helplessness when experiencing academic setbacks

Scholars at lower-ranking universities experience poorer psychological well-being than their counterparts at more prestigious institutions, a major study suggests.

The “common” assumption that the perceived pressures of working or studying in an elite higher education provider are most likely to result in poor mental health is challenged by the results of surveys responded to by nearly 3,000 academics and graduate students from around the world, according to researcher Nathan Hall, associate professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University.

In one survey of almost 900 academics from 27 countries, those from lower-ranking universities reported higher levels of guilt and helplessness when experiencing academic setbacks.

They also reported higher levels of social withdrawal or wishful thinking, both of which are considered to be coping strategies that increase stress levels, as well as higher levels of symptoms of depression. Staff at lower-ranked universities also tended to have higher teaching loads. 

A second survey of more than 2,000 graduate students from 32 countries found that those studying at lower-ranked universities were more likely to have a poor work-life balance and to blame external factors when experiencing academic setbacks.

They were also more likely to report extrinsic motivations for their study, such as reporting that they were pursuing a degree for the income, prestige or subsequent employment rather than because it was intrinsically rewarding.

“Across both samples the results consistently showed that faculty and graduate students at universities that were not as prestigiously ranked tended to report poorer psychological well-being profiles relative to faculty and graduate students who were attending or employed at higher-ranked universities,” said Dr Hall.

While the findings “seem to be contrary to common knowledge” that the academic pressures associated with working or studying in high-ranked universities can be detrimental to mental health, he cautioned that more research is needed to judge the reasons for the results.

The findings, which will be presented at academic conferences later this year, were based on universities’ positions in the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World University Rankings and form part of a wider project exploring the link between institutional stature and academic well-being.

Roger Seifert, professor of human resource management and industrial relations management at Wolverhampton Business School, said that lower-ranked universities tend to have “very poor research infrastructure” and lower levels of funding, and are often run by people who are not “research-minded”, all of which may contribute to feelings of isolation and alienation among researchers.

“Ultimately this is about why people went into the sector and the valuing of their skills," he said. "If you feel that research is important and research-informed teaching is important but the people around you and the people above you don’t value those skills, [that] would make you quite downhearted."

When asked whether there was a way to address poor psychological well-being at lower-ranked universities in the UK, Professor Seifert suggested that the government should alter financial incentives and tighten the regulatory framework, so vice-chancellors at less prestigious institutions are not tempted to follow short-term gains such as increasing undergraduate numbers at the expense of long-term research.

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