Call to support, not sack, junior academics as pandemic hits

As online teaching increases, cutting casualised and short-term staff will cost more down the line, conference hears

July 15, 2020
Caring hands representing nurturing policy for research, new Wellcome Trust grant policy
Source: iStock

Universities should invest in early career academics, rather than cutting loose those on short-term contracts, if they want to flourish in the post-Covid world, a conference has heard.

Institutions around the world have already begun letting go of huge numbers of staff on casual contracts in expectation of a significant hit to their finances from the coronavirus pandemic, but Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at UCL, said that these “tremendously casualised” staff who were “eking out an existence” on short-term contracts and low pay did tremendously important work conducting teaching and supporting students’ online learning.

“These are going to be the academics of tomorrow. We do not want to lose them; we want to nurture them,” Professor Laurillard told the Remote summit, hosted by Arizona State University.

Professor Laurillard said she understood the predicament of universities as they lost money and students but argued nevertheless that institutions had to invest in younger staff because higher education would never go back to the “old normal” but would move instead to a “new normal” involving much more online and blended learning.

“As soon as you start developing online, there is a huge upfront cost. The payoff is you get a much better quality of support for students…you can also scale up your numbers if you are clever about the way you do it,” Professor Laurillard said. “That will require investment…preserve those younger staff, train them up, get them understanding how to do online teaching and then you will not only have a more secure future but a more adaptable future, whether it is adjusting to mass migration, pandemics or climate change.”

Loretta Feris, deputy vice-chancellor for transformation at the University of Cape Town, agreed.

The extent to which a university casualised its lecturers and faculty would have an impact on students, Professor Feris warned. “You will have short-term teachers in that space, but what you need to build up is stability for long-term learning,” she said.

It had been a “steep learning curve” for higher education teachers over the past few months “with lecturers trying to catch up, to develop new forms of pedagogy, redesigning course and curriculum. It’s fixing the boat in the middle of the storm,” Professor Feris explained.

“If we don’t invest in that kind of staff capacity-building when you are dealing with short-term staff, the cost to the university will be massive,” Professor Feris said. “It would make much more sense to give staff some form of job security in what is going to be an increasingly uncertain future, and give them the right skills for the new way of delivering teaching and learning.”

Thomas Schneider, professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern studies at the University of British Columbia, said there were some positive signs that some countries have accepted national responsibility. “For example, in Canada the government has released financial support to avoid the layoffs of research staff in labs across the country, and in some institutions some senior staff are taking pay cuts. It’s important that there is a sense of social responsibility, and I hope that will be reinforced in the coming months,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

It's a very valid, though obvious comment. The future is the young. I 'retired' early 40s (from AI and to go commercial) in recognition of the fact that the youngsters took a month to learn what I'd struggled with over 10 years. Universities are very top heavy now, since retirement at 65 was abolished.
There's absolutely no money in some universities. Struggling with cash flow even! Without understanding the financial difficulties many face, it is too easy to propose unrealistic solutions. Fair? Not at all but the law of survival applies here. We are hanging by a thin thread at mine.