December.17.2020

COVID-19 has destroyed academic careers & stalled equity in our universities: Death knell or opportunity?

By Troy Heffernan

In mid-March, my university sent me and my colleagues home to work remotely for what everyone thought would be a week, maybe ten days. It was meant to be just enough time for Victoria to get on top of the virus that was increasingly in the news. More than 280 days later, most of us still have not been back. It seems we’ll be able to return to our desks soon, but during this time higher education has altered in ways few people could have predicted would happen so quickly.

For the last few years, I have been involved in research that examines the university from two distinct perspectives: one from a leadership and administration position, and the other looking at what it means to be an academic in the twenty-first century.

From a leadership and administration perspective, Professor Jill Blackmore covered these topics in detail when she presented the inaugural AARE Leadership SIG Neil Cranston Lecture. Professor Blackmore expertly outlined that while COVID was completely unpredictable, the way universities reacted was largely unsurprising due to decades of funding changes and increased corporatisation and managerialism within the sector. She argues that government and university management have been careless of international students and academics and their health and wellbeing, with significant equity and long-term effects as to the role of the university in a democracy. Professor Blackmore pointed out that COVID-19 has fractured and exposed the precarious arrangement in Australia where the rising Asian middle-class demand, particularly from China and India, has been cross-subsidising domestic student growth and research in Australian universities.

This post aims to compliment Professor Blackmore’s work by focusing on how COVID-19 has exacerbated issues with academic careers, career progression, and equity in Australian universities.

Precariously employed university workers bear the brunt

Perhaps the first issue to arise in higher education following COVID shutdowns was financial as student numbers regularly dropped and governments elected to provide little financial relief. The first groups to feel the brunt of this were those who are precariously employed. The last few years has been overflowing with researchers asking questions about universities having high numbers of casual employees that were carrying the bulk of teaching work, which minimised their opportunity to research; often considered the surest way to secure ongoing employment.

Rates of precarious employment vary greatly with figures anywhere from 10 to over 70 per cent depending on university and faculty. As finances became an issue during 2020, however, thousands of casual employees lost their jobs and suddenly academic questions around job fairness and employment potential have been replaced with financial survival. For all of the problems with precarious employment, and I was precariously employed for well over five years, the light at the end of the precarious employment tunnel for me and so many others was academic opportunity that could lead to employment, but that has now largely been lost.

Research positions axed

Faculty finances are also deciders of post-doctoral and research fellow numbers and opportunities, and these too have been negatively impacted. Over the last few years, researchers have noted a shift from academics being teaching and research focused, to more heavily being focused on one or the other. Times of prosperity also led some faculties to increased numbers of post-docs and research fellows to help bolster research outputs and grant opportunities. However, these positions often came in addition to the faculty’s operation. Subsequently, a financial downturn quickly sees those additional post-docs and fellowships as superfluous because the faculty is already operating at full capacity without them.

Career progression disappears

The same situation has also occurred for those on grants and fellowships who do not hold continuing positions. Gaining a grant or fellowship was once seen as the pathway to secure employment, but when finances are down and employment opportunities are rare, transferring grant and research success to continuing employment has become more difficult in 2020 than many ever could have predicted.

For similar reasons (and the forthcoming view is entirely anecdotal at this point), 2020 marks the first time I have heard of colleagues from local and international universities, faculties, schools, and departments sometimes being discouraged from applying for research-only grants. This may seem counterintuitive in the university space, however, it makes sense once you consider the financial implications of someone who was carrying out teaching and researching duties, moving to a research-only position for several years. Regardless of their salary being paid as part of the grant, they still need to be replaced within the faculty (to cover their teaching, administration, or leadership duties etc.) and this is an expense some faculties do not want to pay in times of economic difficulty and downturn. 

The above is only a few of the numbers of changes that are taking place in higher education, but there are other repercussions that must be considered. Primarily, what does the job market look like into the future, and who is in the best place to benefit?

Frankly, for some universities and some disciplinary areas, the outlook is not positive. Employment and career prospects in many areas will be paused, or take backwards steps. There will be more competition for jobs, and due to restructures and employment downturns in some institutions and faculties, researchers with years of publications and experience will be vying for positions that only one year ago may have been more likely to be filled by Early Career Researchers who have recently received their PhD, or researchers finishing post-doctoral work or fellowships.

Will only the privileged survive?

Academics are being told this is just a case of things being postponed a little, or that there’s still casual work out there, or that people could use this time to get their publications up for when things settle down in a year or two. So this really becomes a question of, who can survive this postponement? Who can actually publish without work until things settle down and the job market opens again? The answer, I fear, is one that will set back the forward steps universities had made to diversify their workforce. Being able to wait for the job market to settle, being able to survive on the hope of stringing together casual work, or having the ability to write and publish without financial or institutional support, all seem to point to universities returning to their traditional roots of privileging the privileged.

As we try and move past an impossible year, my primary questions surround just how well attempts to increase diversity and inclusion of academic staff have been. Some researchers would say these attempts were never successful, and they might be right. I would hope some areas have been more successful than others. However, I would also question if any system has been successful if an unexpected issue (such as a financial downturn) causes a sector to return to its default mode; and that default mode remains being one that benefits the economically and socially privileged. 

Opportunity to diversify as universities rebuild

As 2021 approaches and many universities are reporting to their staff that the rebuilding process is being planned or starting to get underway, the sector has an opportunity to review how its workforce is constructed. Nothing will undo the damage of COVID within the sector, but the future could be improved if rebuilding included new structures that were no longer at their core centred around privilege.

Dr Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University. His research is centred on higher education with a particular focus on policy, leadership, administration, management, and inequalities within the sector. His current work explores vice-chancellors’ approaches to management, the emotional labour involved in higher education leadership, the consequences of precarious employment, the implication of personal networks in academic promotion and hiring, and understanding the repercussions of higher education’s shift to business models and marketized practices. His work has received numerous awards for research excellence, and he regularly participates in public and invited speaking engagements. Troy is on Twitter @troyheff

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