‘Eulogy to research’ as pandemic makes teaching the priority

Survey of UK academics shows widespread belief that leaders have used ‘disaster management’ to shift focus away from research, cut jobs and increase managerialism

May 24, 2021
Two medical staff removing Personal Protective Equipment kits into a dustbin as a metaphor for universities reprioritising teaching over research.
Source: Getty (Edited)

Nearly two-thirds of UK academics say the coronavirus pandemic has led to universities reprioritising teaching over research, according to a survey, which also showed that staff felt financial considerations are being prioritised over their well-being.

Researchers analysed 1,099 responses to a survey exploring the impact of Covid-19 on academics’ professional lives and found a largely negative picture of how UK universities had managed the crisis.

The paper, forthcoming in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, found that 64 per cent of respondents reported “a reprioritisation of teaching over research”, which the authors said was “especially salient” as 66 per cent of respondents worked in research-intensive universities.

The crisis has heavily dented research revenue, while universities have had to expend significant effort on moving their teaching efforts online. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents reported that universities were increasingly uncoupling research from teaching and introducing more teaching-only jobs.

The researchers describe the responses as “a eulogy to research”, unless scholars work in Covid-related areas.

In the survey, 84 per cent of respondents reported having experienced an intensification of workload during the pandemic, and 78 per cent said they believed the crisis would result in an increase in temporary and casual forms of academic employment.

This contrasts with statements from sector groups, including the Russell Group, which recently called for long-term contracts to become the norm in research, warning that the “pressure of fixed-term contracts and job insecurity means we are losing people from the global academic talent pipeline”.

The survey also found that 81 per cent of respondents believed the crisis would damage the job prospects of early career researchers. Respondents described junior scholars “being exploited in regards to teaching” because they were being asked “to pick up” teaching duties without appropriate compensations.

Management came in for heavy criticism: 67 per cent of respondents believed the pandemic was being used as “a foil for exploitative practices”, or, in the case of 84 per cent of respondents, as a way to consolidate decision-making in centralised leadership teams.

Ninety-five per cent of academics said the pandemic would be used by universities to “legitimise cost-cutting initiatives”, such as closing taught programmes or even whole academic departments.

Sixty per cent of academics said the pandemic had weakened their professional autonomy, and 70 per cent said it had impaired their trust in university leadership.

The researchers point out that many of the problems highlighted by the survey were not new, particularly around job insecurity and marketisation, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Covid-19 has, perhaps irreversibly and universally, worsened the long-established norms of academic employment,” they write.

Co-author Richard Watermeyer, professor of higher education at the University of Bristol, said the survey responses “painted a pretty depressing picture” of how university leadership had responded to the pandemic.

“We can’t escape the prospect of increased casualisation in tandem with role specialisation and, therefore, separation of research and teaching, not least where edtech and a swing to online provision – particularly in opening up to new international markets – affords universities an opportunity to invest less in or pay less for teaching personnel,” he said.

“People spoke very plainly and explicitly about the way in which universities were increasingly moving away from democratic forms of governance and the fact that Covid-19 was providing a foil for universities to push through a variety of different measures, especially cost-cutting measures.”


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Reader's comments (8)

Unsurprising....but the article focuses on issues through the lens of research oriented staff. For people on teaching only contracts like myself (imposed by by "top 10" institution 8 years ago) the pandemic has meant an immense increase in workload. We have been required to teach additional classes to mitigate issues in student satisfaction, as well as pre-recording all of our lectures.....which dos take a lot longer than in-person teaching. The bigger picture for the long term is that Universities will have (are having?) difficulty recruiting good calibre staff into positions that are seen as unappealing. If course, there's always someone prepared to do the job, probably?
Those in academia with a high teaching load have suffered enormously over the last year or so by the increased efforts needed to simply deliver existing modules. While the continued presence of contracts casualisation and exploitation of some employees is a continuing trend in H.E. that is genuinely concerning, I don't have much sympathy for staff at research-intensive institutions who have had to put a relatively small shift in during the pandemic.
And how do you measure this "small shift"? Is it a guess?
This is a clear opportunity for universities to revisited realign the teaching - research nexus. There are two underpinning realities that university administrators and all other academic staff must accept. One is that governments and other funding agencies are faced with major economic challenges and that universities can attain significant relevance of they realize one of their primary objectives must be to collaborate with community groups and government ministries to help with problem solving, that is reduction of crime, poverty, unemployment, delinquency, poor school performance at primary and secondary levels. Every degree major should provide courses that allow graduates to move into small businesses upon graduation. Research is central to all of this because recommendations for problem solving must be data- driven. All staff must be allowed to teach and do this type of research Time to abandon teaching only and research only contracts and shift to a problem solving and small business development model as outlined herein.
This situation is untenable.
This situation of online-only teaching has not just impacted academics on teaching only contracts. I am on a teaching and research contract. My teaching workload doubled because of the need to reinvent my modules; and the time I spent on teaching-related activities trebled, making it equivalent to 90% of my annual workload, two-thirds of which is ignored. I have not done any research for 6 months and have been working an average of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week since then, with no Christmas break, no New Year break, no Easter break, and no public holidays. I have had no work-life balance throughout this period. I am told to have a holiday when i finish all my 2020-21 teaching activities but I have 4 research projects with co-authors waiting for my input to papers in progress, so holidays are probably going to have to wait until this time next year. Yet, my official teaching workload face-to-face is, and continues to be "normal", at 30% of my job. I salute those with a teaching-only contract who have tried to deliver a truly online learning experience for their students. How they coped is beyond comprehension.
Unfortunately, i couldn't count when i wrote my comment. I should have written: My teaching workload doubled because of the need to reinvent my modules; and the time I spent on teaching-related activities trebled, making it equivalent to 120% of my annual workload, two-thirds of which is ignored. And, my official teaching workload face-to-face is 40%.
I'm in a similar situation with both research and teaching obligations, 4 large international projects needing my input (one as coordinator), 2 awaiting results from the call, while being pushed to submit yet more proposals (all large, international projects, of course, because the rest is not prestigious enough to pursue; i.e. no big money to be awarded), all with deadline early September. Then I also have to supersive student dissertations this semester. There is no work-life balance at all. Everyone is under extreme pressure, both for teaching and research. Research is seen as "income" and therefore it needs to be boosted as much as possible, especially as other forms of income are at risk (fees from international students, for example). At the same time, there is this assumption that by moving teaching online, universities need fewer staff and staff doesn't need to put in so many hours because technology is there to help, so senior management and "leadership teams" make staff redundant or restructure without any proper logic. Well... this only goes to show how incompetent many senior management and "leaders" are.


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