A NARRATIVE ON THE STAFF EXPERIENCE, FEBRUARY 2021
It is now a few weeks into the Spring term, yet still work from the Autumn is trickling in to be marked. Exam boards have had to be delayed, which is understandable but at the same time hardly helps bring closure to the previous term. It is particularly hard trying to focus on current teaching while still snowed under by marking, moderation, grade-checking, and responding to student queries from earlier classes.
It is hardest on conveners, of course. Most conveners I know seem to be in a state of perpetual confusion. Some speak of a sense of relief that they have reached the end of the day without making any drastic mistakes, and terror at the process starting up again the next morning. Understandably, they are keen to wrap up Autumn business and make sure exam boards go smoothly. They rely on support from colleagues but colleagues are increasingly finding it difficult to manage those demands. This causes stress for conveners, who sympathise but at the same time have to report explaining any problems or delays to external examiners as well as managers. In the words of one convener, the job has “gone from one of feeling joy that I can support colleagues and students to one in which I am simply focusing on ticking off administrative tasks without … forgetting something crucial”.
Ideally, conveners would rely heavily on their administrators at this time. Unfortunately, the administrative team across the university has been so badly cut that now, each administrator finds herself spread not just across programmes but across departments. She no longer has the familiarity with the programme and its students that they need, though she does an outstanding job trying to be helpful. Even to conveners, it will take her maybe two days, maybe a week to reply, by which time the convener has probably had to deal with the problem herself.
It’s also hardest on staff with heavier teaching loads in the Autumn. That is a major problem with workloads. If workloads are measured purely in terms of totals, these nuances are easily missed. Some staff may have to take on more teaching to balance fewer research commitments. But with the demands of more teaching come the pressures of more marking. From an existential point of view, such colleagues experience the pressures everyone else is feeling at this stage in the Spring term in an acutely heightened way. From a purely year-long totals-based metric, they are not necessarily busier than anyone else (although they would rightly make the case that teaching and associated activities such as prep and marking are woefully under-recognised on the workload model), but knowledge of that hardly makes the current situation easier.
It is not surprising that staff with higher teaching loads, plus conveners with excessive administrative demands, are complaining of high stress levels and ill health. They are not the only ones. External factors, such as concern for the health of loved ones and the isolation many are experiencing, of course exaggerate the situation but it was not a particularly good situation to start with. Many programmes have been under-staffed for years. This is a reality that is rarely reflected in the findings of so-called reviews which are prologues to restructuring, as such reviews are usually based on staff-student ratios. By under-staffed, we don’t mean simply the staff-student ratio, we mean there isn’t the breadth of expertise to make the programme viable, so either existing staff have been stretched thinner than ever or there has had to be a reliance on visiting lecturers. VLs are never a long-term solution. They cannot be expected to take on the pastoral and administrative roles expected of permanent staff. They need managing. This creates more work for programme and module conveners.
So yes, many staff, whether conveners or not, are indeed complaining of higher levels of stress, and some are suffering ill health as a consequence. But a few have complained to us that when they have tried to raise these with their line managers, their genuine workload concerns have been misinterpreted (for want of a better word) as mental health issues. Clearly, more than a few middle managers need some training to help them differentiate between the two. Imagine how frustrating it is for a staff member to approach her line manager seeking genuine workplace support, only to have the “problem” bounced straight back to them, pathologized and individualised. For many staff, the rhetoric of “staff well-being” is as empty and misdirected as that of the “student experience”.
Some staff with younger families or dependents have taken up the furlough option recently advertised by the university. In some cases, this has proved divisive. Conveners are placed under extra pressure to find cover for teaching and other activities, which means more VLs or more work for colleagues. Staff eligible for furlough are aware of this, and quite a few have not taken up this option for this very reason. They are worried about the burden it would place on colleagues. Everything is being done at the last minute. There is no sense at all that there is a university-wide plan, some greater wisdom, to rely on. Many Heads of Department and other middle managers seem unable or unwilling to help in anything but superficial ways. As Young Mr Grace often said, “You’ve all done very well”, before disappearing into his protected, privileged world without having to experience a real day on the shop floor.
We have asked staff, why do you put up with it? One colleague, desperately deserving of and in need of furlough, was reluctant to take that option at first. Why? The answer of course is that academic staff feel a duty towards colleagues and, above all, students. They value what higher education is supposed to represent, a community of practice based around the sharing and valuing of knowledge.
Do the students feel this way? Reports from colleagues across the university suggests that student engagement, including but not limited to attendance, has been down since Autumn. The university seems to place a high premium on this concept of “student engagement”. Academic staff are asked to chase up increasingly high numbers of personal tutees and colour-code various central Excel spreadsheets. Most don’t have the time to do so. This is just another one of those additional tasks we are required to do. It is often the case that we raise our concerns with middle managers who nod sympathetically and proceed to do absolutely nothing. The emails keep coming, the spreadsheets keep getting sent. Another all-staff email arrives from management updating us on the latest measures to provide support in difficult times: as usual, it is all about the students, barely a mention of staff.
Colleagues may feel increasingly frustrated by this but most do as they are asked anyway, because they care about student engagement. Extra support is provided. Students send e-mails at all hours of the day and demand immediate responses. Some write in extremely aggressive tones, making entirely unreasonable demands in inappropriately authoritative voices. Student emails are rarely pleasant. One colleague recalls being reprimanded by a student because her slides for a lecture later that week were not yet available on Moodle. Another colleague mentions being told by a student that the student pays her wages! Those which are not overly demanding or aggressive are usually overly familiar, which is also disrespectful. It may be a trivial thing, but it doesn’t help staff morale that they are expected to just put up with emails that begin with “yo!” or something similar. Of course, more than a few do have reasonable questions, but often they fail to include relevant information, assuming that the staff member knows who they are and which module they are referring to. Is this an implicit false sense of privilege? In any case, it makes the subsequent exchange more complicated and time-consuming than it needs to be, and it doesn’t help that in many cases the resolution is that the student needs to speak to the administrator instead. This frustrates the student, who feels she is being sent round the houses, as much as it does the lecturer who has had her time wasted. Why isn’t there an easy way of informing students about the lines of communication?
In any case, the point is that staff feel compelled to respond, not least because for some if they don’t they will find it difficult to find time later in the day to do so, with forty or fifty emails in their in-boxes waiting to be replied to. And, of course, when they do they try their best to be supportive. However, despite this, the drop in student engagement seems to correlate with an increase in the number of complaints about staff, often concerning a perceived lack of academic support. Where is the support for staff? We are told to “manage student expectations”, as if somehow this is all our fault. Indeed, one of the reasons why some staff feel compelled to respond at all hours is precisely because they fear the repercussions of a student complaint of this kind. Anyone who has ever had any experience of the student complaints process knows that it is flawed. Where is the triage system? It seems that any complaint, however unfounded, has to be seen to be investigated. Students can tick any of those boxes – procedural error, new evidence of mitigation, even bias or prejudice on the part of staff – in apparent isolation from any actual complaint they might be making. Nobody bothers to check up on this, or to reject complaints on the grounds of irrelevance. The implied understanding here is that staff are at fault. Meanwhile, a member of staff who dares to complain about a student – perhaps for stealing her intellectual property and selling it online – has to make do with barely an apology. This can’t be right, but what is the point of challenging this? It seems inevitable in a managerial system that seems obsessed with satisfying “consumer demand” even if that means sacrificing its key resources, the staff who do the front-line work. When you hear about staff feeling undervalued, this is what they mean. The irony of course is that the system itself doesn’t really get that the student is not a consumer, in the true sense of the word.
Along with the culture of complaints or appeals comes the culture of mitigating circumstances. The two are increasingly similar, because neither need, it seems, to be substantiated. So, more and more requests are made for mitigating circumstances, and these are inevitably accepted, which extends the whole marking process, delays the boards, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle, and as a result staff are perpetually tired. And once marks are finally made available to students, more and more students dispute them. Academic quality standards dictate that students have no right of appeal against grades so long as procedures have been properly followed. Or at least, that is how it used to be. Now, students seem to be implicitly encouraged to challenge grades directly to markers who, once upon a time, were respected for their professional integrity and expertise. Some seem to expect softer marking, but of course staff have no desire to compromise the integrity of their grades, and should not be expected to. Some students make complaints that their personal circumstances have not been taken into account, which of course is absurd given that all marking is anonymous. Staff try to explain all of this to students, which is time consuming. Often they are also uncertain of the regulations themselves. Nobody is really sure about the current regulations, even conveners who are expected to know. To re-iterate, the whole thing seems to be changing day by day, lacking any wider vision or plan. And some staff report that this does not have to be the case, and is not the case in other institutions where mitigation is centrally co-ordinated.
Teaching used to be a blessed relief from all of this. Most staff really enjoy engaging with students. For many, teaching via Zoom has not been a pleasant experience. For one thing, lecturers often prefer to be active and mobile rather than static, so inevitably this impacts on the performance itself. Experienced staff feel that they are unable to teach to the high standards they are used to. No doubt this will be reflected in student evaluations, even though students have ample chance to comment during the class and rarely if ever do so. Student engagement via Zoom is even lower than usual. Students seem content to become passive consumers rather than active participants. They hide behind their screens, video and audio off. This is an alienating experience for the lecturer, who finds herself staring at nothing more than a wall of names for hours on end. When they have a comment they might use the chat function but anyone who has ever chaired a Zoom meeting knows it is really hard to manage chat at the same time. You can ask them to use their voices, to show their faces, even reminding them that this would benefit them in the long term, but they are rarely inclined to do so. And when the inevitable happens and the technology goes wrong – the screen freezes, the audio or DVD doesn’t work properly – the lecturer is left alone to manage the crisis while the students are all watching like an audience at some public ritual humiliation. And while you do your best to manage this awful, degrading situation, you can’t help but think that here we are, nearly a year into online teaching, and we are still expected to just muddle through.
Of course there are some good people at IT or AV, but they are not immediately available, for understandable reasons. Probably quite a few have been furloughed. Academic staff often feel that there is an assumption that because we work from home, such support is not as necessary, but all this means in practice is that we are expected to take on the repairs ourselves, skills we do not and do not need to possess. And the understaffed IT support team goes round and round in circles trying to fix problems over time at a distance, and tickets are closed as issues are inaccurately designated as having been resolved which have most certainly not been resolved. That is the “culture of resolution”, the inevitable consequence of a metrics-driven system which sets separate targets for each unit or division. Boxes are ticked but problems are not solved.
In fact, that is part of a much bigger problem. It seems that every single administrative support or professional service department has its own targets which are not aligned to one another. And to help them achieve their targets each takes the path of least resistance and communicates directly to the programme convener, often asking for information that is already readily available. If a student made such a request, one might reasonably respond, “have you checked the Moodle page?” Why can’t these services talk to each other? The Academic Office holds pretty much all the relevant information regarding programmes, modules and so on. Why can’t this be readily available to all other professional services? Some of us have received requests for information regarding programmes we no longer convene! Is it that difficult to at least get the right person? Here’s an idea. There are only seven academic departments or schools so surely it cannot be too difficult for each such department, at the start of each academic year, to upload relevant programme details (modules running, assessment and such) along with updated names of conveners and administrators (because these change, as staff may be seconded elsewhere or on sabbatical), and leave it at that. Very few changes will take place during the workloaded year. And then everyone will have a one-stop shop and conveners can be left to convene!
Not that conveners are the only ones frustrated by this. There are so many routine IT systems and platforms all academics have to familiarise themselves with: Moodle, Allocator, business intelligence, resource lists, I-Trent … No doubt given their own targets each responsible department is expected to constantly update its provision, but this means academics are constantly having to update themselves on new or adapted technologies. At the start of every year, you can hear staff crying out, “I’ve only just gotten used to the set up for Moodle or resource lists, can they not just leave it alone!”
Sadly, academic staff are reporting even more concerns with administrative delays than usual. Even in the Autumn term, there were major concerns about delays to student registration. Programmes taking January intake seem to be experiencing these problems on a greater scale. Some have suggested that our systems are just not properly equipped to deal with this.
For many staff, research is suffering. Research is integral to the identity of an academic, but support for research is at an all-time low. Staff have for some time been confused – on the one hand, everything seems REF-driven, but on the other, there seems to be little or no commitment to building an infrastructure to actually support research. The time allowed for research, or even basic scholarly activities such as reading articles, has been reduced dramatically in real terms. Many colleagues have lost their research allowances, some despite being productive in their fields. They have been told, in no uncertain terms, that their research isn’t good enough. A few will now miss out on planned sabbaticals. Some were informed that their sabbaticals this year had to be withdrawn due to the pressing demands of programme delivery, but felt quite undervalued when they realised this had not been applied to everyone. Staff managing funded projects felt unsupported in so far as they would be unable to avail themselves of the option of furlough, even though they would be eligible. Research active colleagues fear for their careers, as all but a select few seem to have sufficient time to devote to excellence in this area. More than a few colleagues have given up any hope of getting any writing done this year.
When systems don’t work, when a culture of localised targets exists in isolation from the bigger picture, when research and academic integrity are not respected, when students are not properly trained in the use of their “consumer voice”, when middle managers repeat empty rhetoric about staff well-being without the desire, or perhaps the power, to make meaningful changes, and when staff feel they are increasingly distanced from those who actually do have that power, understandably staff morale suffers. Academics feel not only devalued but abused and often humiliated. Prospects for career progression also feel increasingly detached from reality. Over the years, the university’s criteria for promotion have become increasingly narrow, driven primarily of course by REF metrics, which rarely reflect the actual suitability of research-active staff for promotions. Unrealistic teaching metrics based on unreliable student evaluations now seem to play a part in the promotions process as well. Younger staff are desperate to leave (not an easy thing to do in such times, and while some have found alternative employment, a disturbingly high number have taken redundancy or resigned without any new job to go to). Some older staff feel trapped.
As we all know, the staff experience in these “unprecedented times” is an increasingly disjointed one. Gone are the certainties of a fixed place of work, in fixed times. Perhaps what makes this hardest is the lack of variety. Whether one is preparing a lecture, delivering it, researching for an article, or engaged in a meeting, one is sitting in the same chair staring at the same screen. But the general consensus among staff is that while the pandemic has certainly exaggerated some of the factors that have impacted on staff morale, it has most certainly not caused them. The underlying problems were already there: the continuous stress felt by staff at having to balance already insufficient time allocated for equally important tasks. The workload allocation for teaching, student support and marking has never really come close to reflecting reality. In addition they are faced with increased administration as outlined above, and a host of uncategorised tasks (peer observations, recruitment meetings, death by spreadsheet). They do not blame the university for the culture of consumerism per se, or for the demands upon management to manage resources in a sustainable way. Contrary to popular opinion, most academics are not stuck in the past. But they are unhappy about how these challenges are being met locally. You know there is something wrong when an academic who cares deeply for her students and her job goes red in the face at the very mention of the words “student engagement”.
From across the university, staff have contributed to a list of suggestions for alleviating some of the immediate pressures faced by academics at this time and going forward. There are no easy solutions, no “one size fits all”. Some staff experience different pressures than others. There are multiple dimensions to how the routine pressure of contemporary academic life is experienced, including inequities across gender and ethnicity. So not everyone will benefit equally from each of the following – but this list is nonetheless intended to be start of meaningful change. Suggestions include the ditching of such tedious and unnecessary burdens as peer reviewed teaching, administrative spreadsheets, office hours, pre-boards, and entirely redundant meetings. Further pressure can be relieved by just leaving things as they are for a while – no new revalidations, or restructuring, whether of programmes or research centres or the wider university. A more compassionate approach to evaluations, in so far as evaluations are even necessary, would be another welcome change. There is also the not-so-small matter of AGT support – clearer understanding of what is expected and fairer allocation of resources. Plus, there is the on-going request to not feel overburdened by what are obviously administrative tasks, and academic staff make this point in full solidarity with colleagues in professional services aware of the under-resourcing in those areas. I’ve been asked to attach as an appendix to this the more comprehensive list in the hope and expectation that it helps you better understand the everyday life of the Roehampton academic. This expectation is a necessity, not a luxury, given that we already know of colleagues who have been taken ill under the pressures of their working lives.
Compiled and edited by Darren O’Byrne on behalf of UCU following discussions with staff from diverse schools and departments, at the request of HR director Andy Lamb
Suggestions to reduce workload by eliminating unnecessary tasks for academic year 2020-2121 and 2021-2022
- No appraisals, except if requested by individual academic staff
- No filling-in of student engagement spreadsheets
- No peer-review of teaching/Moodle sites etc…
- No individual contacting of tutees to offer and set up meetings. Just one collective email at the beginning of the teaching term to all tutees to remind them that we are their AGT and how they can contact us (e.g. email, office hours)
- No compulsory office hours, but flexibility to all staff (e.g. some staff may prefer to be contacted by email to book a meeting, instead of committing to certain hours every week. Certainly, 4 hours a week is madness!)
- No restructuring or evaluations of research centres (or anything else, really!) for the next 2 years
- No revalidation of programmes if not compulsory (e.g., for accredited courses)
- No responses to module evaluations – e.g., filling in forms on how the module will be improved each year
- No moderation of first-year assignments
- Reduction of the number of assignments/tests per module (1, maximum 2 per module).
- No teaching away-days
- No pre-exam board meetings, just exam boards.
- Go back to one exam board per academic year per programme
- Reinstate sabbaticals in year 2021-22 to help research recover
- Allow staff with caring responsibilities full flexibility on how to deliver their lectures (live online, pre-record or a mixture)
- Admin to add Turnitin boxes on Moodle (although the one term this was done centrally, we ended up having to re-do most of them because of the many mistakes that had been made…)
- Essential departmental information and updates circulated to all members of staff instead of being discussed and shared exclusively through departmental meetings (often at the end, when many colleagues have left) or informal departmental catch-up Zoom meetings
- Better definition of the role of AGTs and of what kind of help they can offer (e.g. not checking on students’ wellbeing, not answering emails about basic information that can easily be found on the portal, etc…)
- Suspend or eliminate all academic admin roles that are not strictly essential or do not need to be done by an academic, e.g. library rep, disciplinary officer (instead each module convener reports to admin any plagiarism, and penalties are applied in a consistent way depending on the gravity reported and the number of offences), disability etc…
- Bids of less than £15,000 that don’t involve staff salaries don’t need to be approved by finance
- Admin to contact individual students to inform them of resit dates, instead of asking academics to send standard individual emails to each of their students for each of their modules
- Admin to be properly resourced to actually do admin tasks
- Make sure heads and deputy heads of department are properly trained in issues of staff well-being
- Reduce the top-heavy department management structures. It may be reasonable for HODs to be non-teaching but surely there is no justification for non-teaching Deputy Heads?
- Establish one-stop shop for up-to-date programme and convener information at the start of each academic year so that professional service departments can access necessary information without bothering conveners
- No more changes to how Moodle sites, resource lists etc. are managed
- Manage student expectations from the centre – this includes how students communicate with staff, what is and isn’t an appropriate reason for complaint or appeal, greater understanding of the pressures staff are under