The impact of the pandemic on the global higher education community needs no introduction.
Its disruptive influence has been felt universally if unevenly. With many international colleagues we have studied and documented the disruption to academic lives in a variety of international settings including the UK, Ireland, Australia and South Africa.
Yet like many researchers, we have been guilty of privileging a focus on academics and failing to consider the impact of COVID-19 on other types of university staff. Recognising this oversight, we launched an online survey of professional services staff (PSS) working across UK universities towards the end of 2021.
A massive minority
Where our previous Covid-related surveys of academics garnered generous responses the strength of response to our PSS survey was overwhelming with almost 5000 completed surveys.
The magnitude of this response we found explained by a commensurate frequency of comments from respondents that the survey had provided them – a “massive minority” population frequently neglected or else ignored – with their first opportunity to articulate and have heard their lived experiences of institutional life under Covid.
Given that PSS account for almost 50% of the entire staff of the UK higher education sector, a failure to give equal status to their experience of working life under COVID represents a significant limitation to understanding disruption and change to the UK’s higher education system brought about by the pandemic.
In our survey, we found many differences with the accounts provided by UK academics and their experience of institutional life under Covid-19, and as specific to a transition to remote working as a consequence of campus closures.
Perhaps the most striking difference is in how PSS differed from academics in their appraisal of university leadership during the pandemic. While academic survey respondents were overwhelmingly negative, our PSS respondents were much more sympathetic and upbeat in their assessment of how senior institutional leaders had responded to COVID’s numerous challenges.
Differences of opinion didn’t end there. Where academics we surveyed spoke of massive work intensification, which they associated with the deterioration of their mental and physical wellbeing, our PSS survey respondents stated that their role had become more demanding, but for the most part had not resulted in longer working hours.
Instead, just short of 50 percent of our respondents stated that remote online working had made them more productive and afforded them greater ownership of their work. Relatedly, while a small majority of PSS respondents spoke of negative impacts to their mental and physical health, just over 20 percent stated that a transition to remote online working had actually benefitted their mental and physical health.
Relational dynamics of online working
In more explicitly positive terms, survey respondents spoke of how online working had provided a window onto each other’s personal lives, which had in turn engendered stronger, closer, more open and empathetic relationships.
Online working was thus discussed as a “tool of conviviality”, breaking down barriers present in relationships developed and managed on-campus and also facilitating more fluent inter-institutional relationships involving staff in other universities.
Moving online was relatedly seen by respondents to have both a humanising and socialising effect – the opposite of many popular accounts of tele-working which describe workers operating in social isolation. Many of the survey respondents spoke of how moving online had improved collegiality within their teams and had fostered a collective resilience to the crisis conditions being experienced within their universities.
Some also suggested that a transition to online working had opened up new opportunities to work with academics and more frequent invitation to participate in academic fora never previously experienced offline and in-person contexts. Respondents considered how moving online was also helping to loosen and level out staff hierarchies in universities and remediate the lower status typically attributed to PSS by academics.
Yet at the same time, a good number of respondents raised concerns of how remote working placed a further strain on an already difficult and often fractured relationship with academics. Some reported that online working was resulting in an increased prevalence of incivility and micro or be that “cyber” aggressions directed at PSS from academics.
Online connectivity was associated with increased demands being made by academics and frustration when PSS, already struggling to manage excessive workloads, were unable to meet these. So, while in some cases respondents discussed online working as having improved the status of PSS in universities, for others, it had hardened a derogative view of their role as service-providers, or as in service to academics.
On balance, however, more than 70 percent of respondents stated their preference for blended working practice. A return to pre-pandemic working conditions was for most rejected with only 11 percent of respondents desiring a return to campus-only working.
Moving beyond pandemia
As we set out by saying, the pandemic or what we have elsewhere termed pandemia has been variously experienced across the diverse membership of university staff communities, yet many voices have been neglected. Moving beyond pandemia necessitates a more inclusive approach to tackling the challenges faced not just by academics but the other half of universities, whose adaptability and resilience to crisis conditions appears comparatively stronger.
The lives of PSS must accordingly be given equal weighting to those of academics in the process of universities’ embrace of a high-flex world and in fulfilling an aspiration of their becoming more human-centric, compassionate and equitable places of work.
Fuller understanding of online working relationships, particularly involving PSS and academics, and how these might be better managed is urgent. There is clearly a need for academics to become better educated in the work challenges and constraints faced by PSS; more realistic in terms of their expectations and what they might reasonably demand; and more humble in their approach and subsequent interactions.
There is manifest potential, provided by online connectivity and working practice, for the greater involvement of PSS and the benefit of their various expertise in academics’ work, which offers one way of increasing academics’ awareness of what they do and concurrently PSS’ institutional profile and corresponding recognition (and reward).
There is also profound opportunity for a “great reset” of higher education that will neutralise concerns of a “great resignation” attributed to the unsustainability of ever intensifying work demands, impoverished work conditions and a poverty of empathetic leadership, which prioritises an ethics of care within univerisites and which draws off the invigorations of collegiality supercharged by pandemia.