As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities are facing dwindling student admissions and dramatic falls in income. While some universities have been praised for their response to the crisis, others have come under fire for actual or suspected plans to reduce staffing numbers to manage costs.
Our own university has announced plans to freeze graduate teaching and laboratory assistant posts for the next two years, as part of a plan to reduce the cost of teaching. The decision leaves many PhD students without teaching jobs in September, exacerbating problems of financial insecurity and mental ill-health for those affected.
The vital role of graduate teaching
The move to remote teaching caused a dramatic shift among university teachers and students; almost overnight, lecturers were scrambling to fill the remaining places for online Zoom training sessions and implementing other forms of digital learning.
Graduate teaching and laboratory assistants have also made this transition, teaching seminars and tutorials on Zoom and Skype platforms from the first day of university lockdown. On top of this immediate online transition, graduate teaching and laboratory assistants are often the first point of contact for students who need support. Prior to the pandemic, this involved students who have learning disabilities; students who are undergoing emotional turmoil; students who are considering dropping out of university education altogether.
Now, almost all students have amassed feelings of anxiety and distress about the future of their education, employability, and immigration in the pandemic. Graduate teaching and laboratory assistants are a vital source of constructive and genuine response for these students, and generally speaking they are not sufficiently recognised and paid for this support.
Not all universities acknowledge the unique and valuable role played by graduate teaching and laboratory assistants in undergraduate education. Even before the pandemic, several universities sought to reduce, de-skill or eliminate graduate teaching and laboratory assistant roles, and other hourly paid teaching staff member contracts. The context of the current pandemic has offered occasion for further casualisation of vulnerable staff.
How will the already overstretched permanent staff cope with providing “teaching excellence” without the support network of graduate teaching and laboratory assistants? Who will respond to the students’ increasing interpersonal demands at the height of a pandemic? And how will the graduate teaching and laboratory assistants – some of whom will go on to become experts in their fields – acquire the teaching experience so crucial to long-term academic careers? Although pertinent, these questions are yet to be answered by many universities across the UK, leaving precarious staff in the dark.
The financial pressures of Covid-19 on universities
It is clear that the higher education sector will be heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Universities UK in its representation to government argued “without government support some universities would face financial failure” and that “the UK’s global position as a world-leader in research and education would suffer significant damage.”
In common with many other industries, universities’ leaders and financial planners have been working to come up with their own solutions and budgets to mitigate the impact of the current crisis. Their responses have been extremely variable; some have, for example, taken a progressive approach, focused on the welfare of their employees. Meanwhile, others have announced or threatened redundancies and pay cuts, often at the level of the already vulnerable, precariously employed staff. As Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU has noted, if one university can take a compassionate approach, why can’t another?
Some have predicted that the impact of job cuts at the lowest level would be catastrophic for teaching and research and have far-reaching economic and social consequences. Instead, the suggestion is that managers “seek more humane ways to maintain their economic viability.”
This is a time when purported values of working together should really be followed through. Rather than turning their backs on their cheap, casualised workforce, managers should finally see how valuable and vital their graduate teaching and laboratory assistants, and all other short-term staff, actually are. After all, if a major airline suddenly fired all their flight attendants and, once travel was resumed, told their pilots they would have to leave the cockpit mid-flight to provide cabin services, we would likely oppose that. Why should we treat university staff members differently?
The impact of precarity on PhD students’ wellbeing
As universities scramble to cut costs to deal with the effects of Covid-19, we are seeing that the first to be targeted are the most financially vulnerable.
Precarity and insecurity are already rife in the higher education sector. Junior academics are the worst affected, with the majority on precarious or short-term contracts. Without teaching experience PhD students will find themselves disadvantaged in an increasingly cut-throat academic job market.
This has a massive impact on mental health and wellbeing. In a 2019 survey by the University and College Union (UCU), over two-thirds of casualised academics (71 per cent) said they believed their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts and more than two-fifths (43 per cent) said it had impacted on their physical health.
The situation is compounded for PhD students, many of whom are international students struggling with a lack of support networks and who have to pay higher tuition fees. There are real fears that the financial pressure and insecurity caused by these sweeping job cuts will exacerbate the crisis of mental health in the higher education sector. A recent global study conducted among PhD students found that more than one-third had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies.
Another study conducted by researchers in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress and one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. It shows that the rate of mental ill-health is far higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population.
Moreover, cuts to graduate teaching will increase pressure on the university’s permanent staff. Excessive workloads are a serious problem in higher education – and part of an emerging picture of mental health concerns across the higher education workforce.
In light of this, we have mounted a campaign to stop cuts to graduate teaching and laboratory assistants, and our UCU branch has a further campaign against insecure and temporary contracts. There is also a UK-wide #CoronaContract demanding that universities guarantee two years’ paid work to casualised staff.
As the situation develops, universities will have to face not only the issues of decreasing admissions and lower budgets, but also the reality of already burnt out, overstretched and underpaid teaching staff. The choices facing universities right now are undoubtedly difficult, but turning their backs on the most vulnerable cannot be the solution.