How are Universities Supporting Those Worst Affected by the Pandemic?

This pandemic has thrown all kinds of inequalities into sharp focus, ranging from fundamental matters of health and wellbeing to job security. The consequences of all these issues will echo down the years ahead, long after the pandemic is a fading nightmare. In terms of (higher) education, the digital divide and who does the homeschooling will both cast a long shadow on opportunity and career progression. Whereas I can say little knowledgeably about the digital divide, which will have significantly magnified other forms of disadvantage already entrenched in UK’s society, I want to say more about the inequalities that homeschooling and caring responsibilities have placed on those who have shouldered the brunt of these, typically women.

In the USA the combined National Academies have recently produced a report Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine looking at the impacts and what measures have been, or should be, introduced to mitigate this impact. (It is worth stressing that of course it isn’t only women who have been impacted but, as I’ve written about before quite early in the pandemic, along with many others, it is clear the impact falls disproportionately on women and, typically, those at relatively early stages.) The simple measure of extending the tenure clock, in US terms, may not help and can actually hinder relative to men, a point reinforced in this recent study.

For many of us, the blurring between work and home – given that you don’t have a commute of more than a few paces when working from home – causes all kinds of problems, again spelled out in this report. We are all used to the person on a call who blanks the video briefly to deal with a child’s worries. But these interruptions matter, impacting – once the Zoom call is over and concentration should be unbroken – on productivity, be it of teaching material or research paper. Data is accumulating across all sectors which shows it is the woman who is more likely to be disrupted and disturbed in this way, or who has to fit in as much work as they can around a day’s homeschooling.

So, how will Universities factor this in? I know my own University is trying to construct appropriate modifications to the paperwork for recruitment and progression to allow some information to be given about the severity of impact on an individual that can be factored into decision-making processes. The devil will be in the detail, as well as the eyes of those who read the statements and then have to work out how to take into account particular circumstances. This will be a challenge, but at least it is one Cambridge is recognizing and working on to make as fair as possible.

Note added 18-3-21 What follows was what I understood at the time of writing, from information in the public domain, was the situation at Liverpool. However, I am now led to believe that the story may be considerably more complex than what I first wrote implies, with many other factors being considered by the University. No doubt in due course the full story will come out and I sincerely hope that the crude metrics I describe below represent only a tiny part of the complete picture. As it stands, the story looks shocking. I hope time proves it incorrect.

Will all universities do likewise? I’m afraid the evidence is no. I want to highlight what is happening at Liverpool University (I believe something different but similar is going on at Leicester) where 47 staff are being required to reapply for their own jobs as downsizing is planned so redundancies are in the air. Now, all universities and colleges are hit by financial pressures, brought about in large part by the pandemic and Brexit, so shedding jobs may be a desperate necessity although the Liverpool case seems to be about much longer term structural changes. However, what is shocking in the Liverpool case is the criteria by which people are to be axed. Metrics, pure and simple, not to say crude.

Two figures of merit are to be used. An individual’s research grant income and Elsevier’s Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI) score for their personal research output. Just these two figures! Think about that….no value is placed on teaching – what an omission ­– or on general citizenship such as mentoring, pastoral care or contributing to the institution’s equality aims. These are the glue that hold a department together and which the University proclaims are important. I don’t think anyone believes that metrics such as Elsevier’s are particularly robust and grant income will be largest for those who do none of the crucial academic ‘housework’, and probably – according to UKRI’s own statistics – who happen to be white and male. Has anyone conducted an equality impact assessment on using these two criteria alone as they are required to do? Because it is extremely hard to imagine they impact everyone, regardless of their characteristics, equally.

As the NAS report makes clear, women’s careers have tended to be more damaged than men’s. A recent UKRI blogpost by Dr Sarah Arrowsmith, a researcher at Liverpool, examines this specifically in their university’s context. This analysis showed grant application rates for male academics in 2020 actually grew by over 11% compared to 2019, but applications by women fell by nearly 20%, giving rise to a net difference of over 30%. So, immediately one can see how the pandemic will impact on the metrics differentially by gender, those metrics that are to be used as they reapply for their own jobs.

Worse, if one considers a longer time period, what about all those good citizens who have contributed to progressing equalities work, such as pulling together the Athena Swan applications or helping to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. Liverpool holds a Silver Institutional Athena Swan award, and so do some of the departments where these redundancies are now targeted. Yet, the work done – and we all know pulling an Athena Swan award together is no light touch job (at least as yet; maybe implementing the recommendations of the Review Group will finally make this achievable) – gets no recognition in the criteria being used to decide who keeps their job. This is deeply worrying. It means that the statements that the University makes such as

“Equality and Diversity will be knitted into the fabric of our Faculty and enshrined at the heart of all we do”

(quoted in staff’s open letter about these redundancies) have no value.

In the end the institution will simply be full of those people who think only about their own research, how much cash they have and where they publish. I’m not sure I’d think that would be a very nice place to work, or one where the teaching – with no weight given to this at all – is very good. It is unlikely there will be a diversity of staff and there will certainly be no one to work to improve that diversity going forward.

This planned action by Liverpool University is to be deplored as a retrograde step. I hope they will reconsider. I hope all universities will be giving much more consideration to these issues in the round as and when the pandemic finally recedes.

*Please see comment below for a correction to this statement. The 47 staff are not being offered the chance to reapply for their jobs: they are at risk of being made compulsorily redundant.

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One Response to How are Universities Supporting Those Worst Affected by the Pandemic?

  1. Rebecca Lawson says:

    Thanks so much for this blog, Athene. The use of these narrow research metrics by the University of Liverpool means that all of the work done on Athena Swan and similar initiatives aimed at reducing gender inequality and improving diversity have damaged – possibly terminally – the careers of the very people they are supposed to be helping. This is blatantly unfair and it has to be called out.

    One quick correction: the 47 T&R (Teaching and Research contract) academics picked out as failing on the research income and FWCI benchmarks set by the University of Liverpool this January are not being given the chance to reapply for their old jobs. They are threatened with compulsory redundancy with no alternative (such as swopping to Teaching and Scholarship contracts) offered.

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