Is it all ‘Zoom and Gloom’ for Higher Education? Reflections in the Midst of a Pandemic

In this piece, we scan the horizons of the higher education sector in the UK with an aim to provide a pulse-check of the new work realities and hurdles. We do so by focusing on seven key themes that cover but perhaps do not exhaust the multitude of HE outlooks and experiences. We appraise the witnessed changes through a medley of different identities, among them as academics in a privileged position of relatively secure employment as well as four migrants, working in four UK HE institutions.


As soon as universities started to transition into digital and distant working, one of the first challenges that academics with teaching and pastoral responsibilities faced was the need to transfer face-to-face learning experiences into a remote learning environment. Academics have had to negotiate a pandemic and learn the requirements of new systems and pedagogies at an unprecedented speed, all the while ensuring that students’ learning is not compromised. In addition, the unparalleled level of uncertainty in HE means that academics need to manage students’ anxieties as well as their own. The increasing organisational pressure coupled with work intensification may trigger significant emotional labour. In other words, emotional labour is not new for academics, as they already have to control their emotions and display the appropriate feelings under stressful conditions. However the intensification of work (i.e. the fast and demanding pace that changes were required), the blurring of multiple roles that individuals perform in their lives, and the need to manage the uncertainties and anxieties that students are also facing have elevated the emotional labour to an unprecedented scale. Furthermore, since emotional labour is not spontaneous, feelings of inadequacy, guilt and experiencing high levels of stress become the norm.


Another area which may trigger intense emotional labour is ‘responsibilisation’. The need for workers to own and mitigate against employment risks by taking steps to manage their career trajectories and development is not new. In his influential book The Precariat, Guy Standing discusses the additional, unnoticed and frequently unpaid activities in which employees have to engage in order to earn their keep. Termed ‘work-for-labour’, those activities may include filling-out application forms, or attending team meetings and training activities in workers’ own time. Responsibilisation is even starker in academia during a pandemic, and neither permanent (tenured) nor temporary (adjunct) academics are exempt. The needs of the job (be they marking, lesson planning and research) and the needs of students (supervision, tutoring, mentoring and learning-needs support) do not cease in the context of social distancing. If HE formally moves towards online delivery for the 2020/21 academic year, the expectations for ‘excellent’ online delivery may steeply increase without universities providing the necessary resources. In the meantime, teach-yourself-digital-skills training is, of course, made available by universities to their staff and it is expected that academics will take them in order to up-skill themselves, often in their own time. Finally, working remotely may accentuate a round-the-clock service to students, which comes at great cost to the physical and mental health of academics.


In his award-winning book The Lucifer Effect, renowned psychologist Philip Zimbardo reflects on the ongoing need for individuals to shape their self-understanding in the context of various power relationships, including those at work. Zimbardo suggests that people do not possess complete knowledge of who they are – this knowledge emerges and is worked out when individuals are exposed to new situations, new dynamics and the ambiguity of new contexts. Unsurprisingly, physical and social distancing has blurred the boundaries between the various social roles that academics undertake. Home, where academics are also partners, sons, daughters, carers or guardians, already shared a fragile boundary with work. Now, however, home is the place of work, and academics increasingly have to balance their multiple identities in their home space, against a backdrop of unmanageable workloads.


As each academic has a different set of social roles and identities, COVID-19 lockdown is not a shared experience. For example, in families where domestic responsibilities are not undertaken equally by both parents, the likelihood for the caring parent to effectively combine parenting, teleworking and personal wellbeing is low. Additionally, academia has been criticised for being patriarchal, ableist and classist, and these inequalities may be reproduced if not exacerbated during the global pandemic. Academics who live alone, however, should also not be romanticised. It may seem that single scholars, particularly those who have space for a home office, may carry on with work relatively undisturbed, and even save time and money because commuting to work is no longer required. Yet, social distancing can be an isolating and lonely experience, particularly for those academics belonging to vulnerable groups who are required to self-isolate.


Individuals are social beings and isolation places serious mental health challenges for a significant part of the population. Academics are no exception. In contrast to a popular belief that scholars are hidden behind piles of books in an ivory tower, interpersonal communication is one of their key everyday activities. Academics regularly communicate with students, professional staff members and colleagues, rendering the imposed lockdown and self-isolation detrimental to their psyche. COVID-19 has turned universities into a ‘platform that provides academics with online work resources, such as email accounts and institutional journal subscriptions, without requiring workers’ physical presence.  In this context, all (but in particular early-career international faculty and elder) staff members may face significant challenges. For example, early-career academics from overseas often live alone and far from their relatives and networks. As the lockdown rules become stricter to prevent the spreading of the virus, they may prove taxing to foreign staff with no one to interact with for days. Similarly, elder academics and others considered at greater risk of contagion due to underlying health conditions may also have to go through the lockdown on their own, a situation that adds to their already heightened sense of worry. With many conferences and workshops also being cancelled or postponed, the opportunities to connect with peers are minimal. Against this backdrop where universities have become ‘knowledge’ rather than ‘physical spaces’, finding alternative ways to connect and collaborate with others becomes crucial. Digital platforms and social media, such as Twitter may be instrumental tools for sustaining the academic community.


The fast-changing circumstances in combination with a plethora of types of contracts and employment arrangements render some employees particularly vulnerable to the current crisis. For example, a large number of universities have implemented hiring freezes that cause significant problems to casual (adjunct) staff members whose temporary contracts expire during the pandemic. Some of these employees may also be doctoral researchers and may find making progress with their PhDs difficult. Indeed, as many other academics they may have to revise their data collection plans; yet they also need to work within a restricted timeline which is now put in jeopardy, not least due to increased stress and the possibility of contracting the virus. Further still, international doctoral researchers nearing thesis submission face the fact that they may graduate without having found a job and may see their visas revoked or expired. It is, however, worth mentioning that some HE institutions have been proactive in protecting their staff members, offering extensions to tenure-track appointments and renewing temporary contracts. Nevertheless, the stress over an unknown future is palpable in the circles of academia, which is facing one of its greatest crises.

Pulse-check of the new work realities and hurdles

Despite the outlined challenges that COVID-19 has posed to the HE sector, it is still possible to argue that academics are in a position of privilege. Privilege is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that could be framed on ethnicity and gender among other characteristics. However, we want to point out that , those of us who are still able to work and receive a salary, such as those in a permanent post, are in a position of privilege. Recognising such a position empowers us to reflect on what kind of higher education, labour relations and economies we are going to advocate once the pandemic ends. The Higher Education sector in the UK is based on an unsustainable business model that over-relies on international students, and this pandemic exposes the fragilities of the sector. Additionally, the sector is well known for its poor working conditions, as exemplified by the UCU industrial action in late 2019/early 2020 that targeted, among other issues, a lack of significant improvements on equality, pay, workload and casualisation in universities.

Our societies are facing a new situation and institutions and individuals require time to make sense and adjust to the new scenario. The HE institutions that pretend that ‘business is as usual’ or rush to make decisions on how their learning will be transformed due to the pandemic are not giving staff time and space to adapt. Our ‘new’ working lives are characterised as much by physical distancing practices as by distant socialising through Zoom meetings, Skype coffees and, perhaps very soon, performance reviews via Teams. Working towards a way out of the crisis, it is imperative to recognise and address the issues within the sector, such as those highlighted during the recent UCU industrial action. Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, has recently argued that universities will also face a financial storm and recognised that the sector cannot face it alone. If we are honest within our own activism for a better HE sector, and serious about considering the future of the society, we must remember the purpose of the university. We must reflect, seek collaborative ways to overcome the crisis, and build a sector with improved working conditions. Decisions taken in the context of the pandemic should take into account the fact that the university is not just a business model and that HE communities involve a range of stakeholders including academics, students and professional staff among others whose views should help shape the future of the sector.


Marcus Gomes is Lecturer in Organisation Studies and Sustainability at the University of Cardiff. Constantine Manolchev is Lecturer in Sustainable Futures at the University of Exeter. Margarita Nyfoudi is Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour at the University of Birmingham. Toma Pustelnikovaite is Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Abertay University.

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