To all rectors, managing directors, funding bodies, and governments
The coronavirus pandemic, and the measures that are being taken to stop this pandemic, are firmly affecting our lives. Academia is heavily affected as well by the corona crisis, even though maybe less visibly, as (Belgian) higher education continued their activities. University (college) campuses across Belgium are feeling the impact of the corona crisis and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The seeming business-as-usual, albeit online and through telework, nonetheless obscures an invisible crisis that is taking place in Belgian higher education at the moment. All research labs, except the ones working on COVID-19, had to stop their activities and field work became impossible. Libraries and archives, which play a central role in research and learning, are closed. Regardless of our position as students, technical and support staff, lecturers, or researchers, many of us are struggling. From financial uncertainty to increased workload, precarious housing, unexpected care of children and relatives, mental health struggles, physical illness, separation from family and friends, or suffering the loss of loved ones we are all affected by (a combination of) these problems. Their impact falls disproportionately on young researchers with short term contracts and the most precarious students and workers.
Our universities and colleges have not remained blind to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on staff and students’ lives. They have sent out messages of gratitude and support for everyone’s dedication, resilience and quick adaptivity to the situation. Nonetheless, all universities have chosen to continue and maintain their activities, stay as fully functioning as possible, massively shifting to telework, -teaching and -study – thus almost forcefully demanding from both staff and students to be resilient and adaptive. Even though we appreciate the increasing emphasis on self-care and mental health in universities’ discourses, and some universities have even suggested to be ‘mild’ and ‘lenient’ while ‘non-essential tasks’ could be postponed, we also notice that this puts additional pressure on individual staff, researchers and students if measures to back up this ‘mildness’ remain absent. Not only does this lead to ad hoc decision making, it also fails to acknowledge the differential power positions from which we study or work.
Pre-corona academia was already characterized by a range of intersectional inequalities (paid staff vs un(der)paid or even outsourced staff, full-time vs part-time, caring obligations or not, racism, fixed and temporary contracts, international mobility rights or not, etc…); the current pandemic exacerbates structural inequalities which exist along gendered, racialized, classed, abled, heteronormative and colonial lines, making a step backward for equity. Moreover, crisis management sometimes leads to top-down decision making, as such jeopardizing any democratic decision-process about the short and long term future of (Belgian) higher education.
Attached to this open letter, we provide an overview of the effects of the corona pandemic on different groups within the university, and the specific needs we are facing. We urge governments, universities and funding agencies to address the various concerns and take actions to alleviate pressure on the short and long term. These needs can be summarized as follows:
- In the short term, we need additional financial resources. As our government and the European Commission are now setting up funding programs to salvage the economy, higher education should not be left out. Extensions of short terms contracts, especially for the less privileged among us, should be immediately provided. Financial help, like rent waivers, should be organized for precarious students losing their income. Additional resources need to be made available to alleviate the extremely increased workload in the sector, especially given the preexisting abundance of workload in academia. On a longer term, we need to improve the labour conditions of all staff within our universities, while also re-imagining the competitive allocation mechanism on which academic resources are often based.
- We need to change evaluation criteria for research and teaching. In the short term, doctoral schools, funding bodies, and universities need to take into account the exceptional times in which we have been working and studying, by extending deadlines and explicitly recognizing the disruption caused by the pandemic in their evaluation processes. On a longer term, evaluation, promotion, and hiring practices need to allow for and value the time needed for reproductive labour and caring tasks.
- Mental health and workload: on a short term universities have to implement plans for mental health and adapt the output expectations and internal deadlines, both for students and workers. In the longer run, governments and universities need to take seriously the severe mental health issues existing in academia and take actions to prevent the causes (decrease of structural workload, more support, less competition and pressure, etc.).
- Governments, universities and funding agencies should quickly open a discussion to coordinate their actions in order to implement structural collective measures to alleviate the effects of this crisis. This dialogue should also take place within each university including all democratic platforms and representations to avoid top down decision making. This would ensure that all workers and students in need will receive adequate and active support from their institutions and that all the relevant information is accessible in a centralized way. In the longer term and beyond the corona crisis, the existence of such coordination would be highly beneficial.
A crisis such as the pandemic we are experiencing not only poses many challenges, but also provides us with opportunities. Rather than taking haphazard decisions, we now have an opportunity to open a broad discussion about what the university is, what we think it should be, and how to move forward to that goal. What can a university look like that values education and research as essential public goods? How can we envision universities where reproductive labour and care work can be combined with academic work, and even be valued? How can we decrease structural inequalities, within society and within our university campuses? We need to collectively imagine a better path forward, one that is consistent with, and moves toward, the kind of university we want for students’ education, for quality research, for good jobs, for a thriving campus community, and for a vibrant democracy.
Below you can find the full manifesto in which we list in detail the different issues people in higher education are facing due to the consequences of the corona measures.
You can support our demands by signing this petition.
Effects of the corona pandemic on different groups within higher education
In this manifesto we aim to list the different issues people in higher education are facing due to the consequences of the corona measures. Even though many of the issues listed here require urgent solutions and should be addressed as soon as possible, our goal is predominantly aimed for the long term. Corona has proven to be a magnifier of existing inequalities and struggles while also creating new precarities. Any attempt to tackle the current crisis should start with acknowledging that what went wrong before corona already severely affected our lives and that we should work towards social justice, and towards another university.
In what follows we discuss the effect of the corona pandemic on different groups within the university. It is important to bear in mind that the groups are not mutually exclusive. For example, people can fall within the group of doctoral researchers, and within the group of people with psychological problems, and within the group of parents. Intersectionality means, among other things, that we have to pay attention to the combined effects or interaction between these different categories as well. This also means that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Care leave can for example be a solution for technical staff who are technically unemployed, but it is not necessarily a solution for someone on an academic temporary contract (if there is no contract extension by the length of the care leave), as otherwise, after the care leave, the work simply should be done in a shorter time.
a. Cleaning staff and staff of the student restaurants
This section is written based on the situation at Ghent University. Even though some of the struggles and actions taken might be specific to the institutional context of Ghent University, staff at VUB, KUL and ULB have reported similar struggles and these should therefore be regarded as concerns relevant in Belgian higher education as a whole.
Universities are not just spaces where knowledge is produced and distributed by researchers and students. To make all that research and educational work possible, we need clean auditoria and offices, good and healthy food to fill our stomachs, and affordable nurseries for our children. This care/reproductive work is one of the necessary conditions to make all other academic work possible.
Cleaners, nursery workers, cafeteria and student restaurant workers at universities are subjected to strongly varying working conditions. The common denominator, though, is that they are mostly women and/or people of colour or with a migration background, and that their work is often badly paid and precarious. The corona crisis has exacerbated their already vulnerable working conditions.
At Ghent University, the workers in the cafeterias, student restaurants and some of the nurseries are university staff, but they are not statutory staff. This implies that they enjoy less protection in case of (long term) illness, and receive less pension benefits. Some of them still earn less than the living wage of 14 euros per hour, forcing them to combine their work at University with other (weekend) jobs. During the corona crisis, the UGent cafeteria and restaurant staff were exempted from service, but were still entitled to their full salaries.
The cleaning staff at Ghent University is not UGent personnel, but is outsourced to ISS, a multinational facility services company. During the UGent Women’s Strike preparations, it became apparent that their working conditions are often not good. There are complaints of high work pressures because of understaffing and continuously expanding workload, physically burdensome work, lack of appreciation by ISS management, precarious contracts and difficult holiday planning (during UGent holidays, the cleaners are put on economic unemployment). In case of problems, the university and ISS management often point to each other on who is responsible over the working conditions of the cleaners, a common problem in case of subcontracting. During the Corona crisis, the UGent cleaners were put on temporary unemployment, resulting in 25% salary loss, which is a substantial loss for workers in the lowest salary categories.
With some UGent workers (such as lab researchers) returning to the offices and the labs, and especially since the start of the exams, cleaners have been called upon to ensure the implementation of extra hygiene and disinfection measures. They are providing examiners and supporting staff with the necessary mouth masks, disinfectant, and gloves, and need to clean all the examination rooms several times a day, between each exam shift, within a limited time. Cleaning staff are thus expected to perform different tasks than usual, sometimes at different locations than their usual workplace, and work with different products, for which they had to take extra training. These changes in their jobs may lead to a further increase in their work pressure and an exposure to higher risks.
Although care and cleaning workers have been ‘essential’ in halting the spread of the virus and mitigating the pandemic, their material working conditions are still too often precarious. In a London based hospital, ISS cleaners went on strike in late March after ISS management withheld their salaries despite working at the frontline. Also at Ghent University, the cleaners and the cafeteria and nursery workers went on strike on 9th of March, as part of the UGent Women’s Strike, to demand better working conditions: 1) 14 euro per hour for all UGent staff, 2) insourcing of cleaners, 3) statutarisation of cafeteria, restaurant and nursery workers. As of now, the UGent Women’s Strike and ACOD UGent have won the statutarisation of the student restaurant workers and some child care workers. This should hold for all non-statutory and outsourced personnel at all Belgian universities.
In the past weeks, many students have pointed out a lack of concern with their particular situation by universities and by the government and a lack of attention for their work pressure and mental health (see for example this petition). This has also been confirmed by a study among 2700 students at ULB.
Worries related to COVID-19 and their family and friends and lack of social contact, combined with stress related to their studies, prevent many students from focusing fully on their studies. Moreover, with libraries and student homes closed, many students lack good study conditions. Some students take up extra caring tasks during this period, for example to look after their younger siblings or children. The ULB survey showed that more than 9 out of 10 students have less time to devote to studying since the beginning of the lockdown. Many also lack a suitable place to study, as spaces are often shared with others. Furthermore, not every student has their own laptop or (stable) internet connection at home. The ULB study found that at least 700 students (out of 2700 students) do not have access to a computer, half of the respondents had to share their laptop and 20% had a poor internet connection.
The shift to online learning is often presented as self-evident but has a strong impact on focus and learning ability for many students. Online and distance learning is not a suitable alternative for every student. The ULB study found that more than two thirds of the students have difficulties in following distance learning, and more than 80% of the respondents reported that their learning capacity had been reduced (especially students in the first bachelor year). Moreover, in some instances, online learning poses serious privacy questions and is experienced as an invasion of the student’s personal space. This boundary is even more transgressed in cases in which programs are used to monitor students during tests or exams, fostering a culture of surveillance instead of one based on mutual trust.
Replacing classes (partly) by individual or group assignments (sometimes announced last-minute) and independent study has generally increased the workload. More than half of the respondents of the ULB study report an increased workload. For courses without replacement tasks or lectures and a focus on independent study, students report a lack of decent study material and a lack of help from teaching staff. Certain students in the process of writing their bachelor or master theses were also seriously affected by the lockdown measures (e.g. for their data collection), while the quality of supervision they report often decreased (which might not be so surprising at a time where supervisors were overloaded with teaching duties). Students who were supposed to complete an internship this semester were also affected. Some were no longer able to do so, other internships were indefinitely postponed or even replaced by less relevant sorts of experience (e.g. some medical students are now used as cheap labour for the more thankless, however still risky, tasks on COVID wards). Moreover, the major insecurity about the way higher education will take shape in the near future, seems to put off many future students. Chances are real that this insecurity will put up an additional barrier for some high school students, especially for those for whom higher education was already not self-evident.
The university management and the government have responded to the students’ public cry for help by recognizing the difficulties that learning could entail in the current context. Universities have responded (where this was not the case already) by proposing “mild” evaluations or proposing to regard exam results in the light of the previous years; what this will mean in practice still needs to become clear. The Flemish education minister has also pointed at the possibility for individual students to appeal to force majeure in order to fight the possible loss of ECTS credits. If it is really the case that students in need are encouraged to do so, procedures should be simplified accordingly, and the individual character of such procedures should take on a more collective form. Moreover, students should be personally informed about their right to appeal and the modalities they need to follow in order to do so. A possible alternative could be to adjust, in consultation with students, the (Flemish) learning account system for the current academic year.
Lastly, it is important to mention those students in a precarious situation. This can refer to the material conditions in which students live or are forced to spend the lockdown, not always allowing for proper studying. It can also touch upon the social conditions in which students live; the reported increase of domestic violence and alcohol abuse without a doubt also affects student populations. In financial terms, while 45% of the respondents to the ULB survey had a student job before confinement, 90% of them lost that job, resulting in a heavy loss of financial resources. For those depending on these incomes to survive, to support themselves (and possibly the people they care for) and pay rent – the results are dramatic. Again, to a certain extent material help is being provided to some categories of students by some universities: social funds have been set up, hiring prices diminished, food distribution organized – the question remains to what extent these initiatives are accessible for all those who need them.
c. International students and staff
For many international students and staff, the lockdown has proven to be an alienating experience. For most of them, an important aim of studying and/or working abroad is to get acquainted with a new environment and to experience and stimulate cultural exchange. The current social distancing regulations are severely hindering this aim. The sudden lockdown also forced many international students and staff to quickly decide whether to stay in Belgium or to go to those places where they might have a broader social network and/or more caring tasks. The latter choice of course limits the social interactions with their colleagues and peers, e.g. when having to overcome time differences, while many others also worry about friends and family left behind in Belgium. Those who stayed in Belgium face similar worries for their friends and family elsewhere, especially since the travel restrictions make it uncertain or even impossible to know when they will be able to visit their loved ones in the short term. The increased stress and mental health issues this creates are exacerbated when there is no large social network to rely on. Many international students and staff have reported feelings of loneliness, alienation and stress.
The current lockdown also creates financial worries for many international students and staff. Not all of those who are technically unemployed have the right to unemployment benefits. This is especially the case for non-EU citizens, but also students relying on student jobs. For them, the lockdown created a sudden loss of income, putting them in very precarious situations. The same goes for international students who rely on their family for financial support. There is a high risk that people in the most precarious situations will drop out of higher education (whether as researchers, teachers, or students) in the short or longer run. We therefore urgently need support from governments and universities for those in precarious financial situations, e.g. through creating a solidarity fund (in the short term) and more structural financial support on the long term.
For many people, language also proves to be an important additional barrier, not only to get updates about the measures related to corona, but also when seeking to receive support from the government, universities or funding bodies. Most of the administration procedures have been severely slowed down or even completely stopped. This also means that there are many administrative and bureaucratic issues that arise, e.g. for enrolment procedures, admission letters, visa applications, and/or residence permit applications or renewals (e.g. because of delays in extending contracts or closures of municipality services).
d. Personnel on temporary contracts
In higher education, a majority of people are working on temporary contracts. Even pre-corona, the lack of (long term) job security creates financial and other worries. The current pandemic exacerbates these concerns in a variety of ways. Technical, administrative, and support staff worry about contracts not being extended due to budget cuts or because of social distancing measures making their job inaccessible. For many academic staff, similar concerns arise. However the specificity of academic work also implies that work which has not been finished during the contract puts academics in difficult situations on the longer term. For those who now have to reorient their work towards teaching, those who can’t access field work/lab/archive/…, and/or those unable to work due to caring tasks or (physical and mental) health problems, it is impossible to finish the same amount of work as was envisioned before corona. As a result, many academic staff now face having to work unpaid after their contract ends (which is not only undesirable, but also not possible for everyone) or resign to only partly fulfil their work, which will very likely jeopardize (academic and other) careers in the long run. Many people on temporary contracts have reported increasing amounts of stress and mental health issues, while more people are facing (financial) precarity.
Some universities, university colleges and funding bodies are taking (limited) actions, e.g. extending the deadline in which working budgets or other resources can be used, or promising to take into account the exceptional circumstances academic staff have experienced. Yet, the information is often fragmented and unclear. A way to help students and staff in the short term could be a FAQ website dedicated to gathering all information to bureaucratic procedures and explaining the different options each person has depending on their specific situation and needs, and whom to contact for support. A centralized point of information can also help to support international students and staff who do not always find their way in the fragmented stream of information, due to language barriers and limited or closed administrative services.
However, information alone is not enough. We demand additional measures to be taken which allow for flexibility of evaluation criteria (e.g. for projects, PhD’s, tenure tracks, hiring committees, etc.) by universities and funding agencies, and for flexibility on how to spend available budgets (e.g. transferring working budgets to wages). Governments, universities and funding bodies also need to provide additional financial resources for academic and support staff to alleviate the increased workload and to support staff in precarious situations (e.g. through an emergency/solidarity fund). For technical staff with caring responsibilities, corona leave can be a solution (if financially high enough!). For academic staff with caring tasks, corona leave alone is not a solution as long as there is no extension of the temporary contract for the time of the corona leave.
e. Technical staff
The effects of corona on technical staff vary strongly. Those involved in online learning, student support, ICT infrastructure, etc. are facing an (extremely) increased workload which leads to high amounts of pressure and stress. Many universities report that technical staff are dropping out as a consequence of this suddenly increased workload with changing conditions on an almost daily basis. The work that needs to be done is also highly complex and tiring – think of the almost impossible task to organize exams in the current circumstances. Most people were forced to do this work from home. Yet, for many people teleworking also means that they do not have the necessary equipment to work from home while support from peers or superiors is more difficult from a distance, or even completely absent. The lack of social interaction leads to feelings of loneliness, alienation, and stress. Especially for those people whose housing conditions do not allow for sufficient (silent/private) space or ‘a room of one’s own’, the home working conditions turn out to be an additional source of stress. For those people with caring tasks, the combination of the dramatically increased workload with care turned out to be impossible. Even for those eligible for the so-called ‘corona leave’ (which is not the case for everybody), the financial benefits were not always high enough, which forces employees to choose between financial worries or difficult working conditions.
For those who can’t telework (fulltime), there might be additional worries in terms of health and safety. Even though universities have taken safety measures, technical staff worries about health and safety when being on campus is mandatory and physical distance and/or face-to-face contact can’t be avoided, especially for those belonging to risk groups themselves or those who have people with higher risk in their close circle of family or friends.
For other technical staff, continuing working was not an option, as facilities were closed or the core tasks of their job were forbidden due to corona measures (e.g. technical support for non-critical research, staff of university libraries, etc). As a result, they face the financial consequences of technical unemployment or face not having their contracts extended when working on temporary contracts.
f. Mental health
The current crisis and the consequences it entails for the various groups and categories mentioned in this document, are also to be considered in relation with mental health.
Mental health has already proven to be a pain point in academia before the COVID-19 crisis. Research carried out by ECOOM in 2013 and 2018 has, among other things, revealed that 30% of PhD researchers in Flanders are at risk for clinical depression. These results were corroborated by other research abroad. Although there is no similar large scale research for other categories of academic personnel, mental health has repeatedly been said to be a problem in a working culture that is high-pressure and hypercompetitive. It is our worry and contention that these existing mental issues will be exacerbated by this crisis, along with new issues specifically related to the new conditions of living, working, but also studying. Indeed, the recent ULB student corona survey shows that 55% of the responding students are in a state of psychological malaise. The consequences are multiple: anxiety, fatigue, depression, even suicidal thoughts, etc. Moreover, in the current situation it has become more difficult to access all kinds of services, including medical and mental health services.
It is important to regard the social (mental) impact of the crisis in relation with the material conditions (from place of living over internet connection to the adequacy of the material at hand) it has brought about in the past months, and the underlying assumptions of a general shift to telework and of the continuation of academic work in higher education regardless of the pandemic.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has forced almost all academic and non-academic staff, and students to work and study from home, this is not equally self-evident for all concerned. Depending on the precariousness of one’s position (students, PhD researchers, workers on temporary or outsourced contracts, researchers with small grants, single people in caring positions, etc.), living spaces might or might not be shared 24/7. Bedrooms turn into offices, shared rooms (like, for example, living rooms) into co-working spaces and pre-teaching classes at the same time as kindergartens – working, sleeping, caring, studying, eating, etc. all taking place in the same places simultaneously, leading to a lack of routine and differentiation in daily life. In most cases, even so for the more privileged, these are not ideal conditions for performing most kinds of labour that are expected from academic and technical staff or students (be it administration, all kinds of teaching, or research activities).
It also ought to be taken into account that the geometry of a great number of staff members’ academic work has taken on a different shape. People on teaching mandates and contracts are now overloaded, their working percentage no longer matching the actual work they do. People previously dedicating equal time to teaching and research, now dedicate a greater part of their time to teaching, whilst still being expected to meet previously agreed research deadlines on the long run. Researchers whose labs have been closed, whose fieldwork trips have been postponed or annulled or whose archival material collection cannot take place – also face growing insecurities. The new forms of teaching and supervision also impact students in a demanding way (overload, non-stop pressure, insecurity about the future, ad-hoc approaches of different teachers, etc.). These are only a few examples.
Last but not least, the strain of growing social isolation for many people is not to be disregarded, both the isolation from colleagues (going from informal social support over proper supervision to exchange with peers at home or during international gatherings) and loved ones take a toll.
We demand that the (possible) mental health effects of the increased pressure, maintained expectations, isolation and growing insecurities and precarity brought about by the pandemic, that are likely to preponderantly affect the most vulnerable already, be taken into account, and that relief structures for the most burdened categories be implemented on the long term.
g. Field- and lab work and library and archival research
The COVID-19 pandemic affects different kinds of research in various ways. As a result of the measures that were taken, some laboratories had to stop their work and/or downscale significantly – slowing down research or in the worst case stopping the possibility of continuing lab work for an indefinite period of time.
Research based on fieldwork is also heavily impacted. Due to the social distancing constraints imposed and the constraints on free movement and the closing of borders, the carrying out of fieldwork has been complicated.
In terms of accessibility, fieldwork that needs to be done in remote countries, in regions or with groups most affected by the pandemic, is likely to be most affected. It is noteworthy that this can also hold for fieldwork within the European Union (some countries not opening their borders for all nationalities, e.g.) or even within Belgium (e.g., participant observation with elderly people). As a result of the pandemic, many researchers cannot collect their data in the manner that was initially planned and/or by the initially agreed deadlines. It is not clear when these researchers will be able to go to their fields again.
For some researchers, depending on their discipline and topic, fieldwork or data collection might be (partly) replaced by digital alternatives. Many ethnographers, or researchers conducting interviews, for example, are currently being encouraged to think about ways to conduct their fieldwork online. However, even for those types of fieldwork that may in principle allow for this, it is important not to assume that ethnographers can simply replace participant observation in a physical place by virtual presence. While digital ethnography is an existing and valid approach, it requires a specific research design and particular methods, it also impacts the kind of results one obtains, hence the kind of knowledge one produces. Therefore, most research projects that were not initially designed to be carried out online, cannot simply be transformed into digital projects. Furthermore, it is also not always practically possible to conduct research as initially designed by using online tools, because internet access may not be available, e.g. for rural areas of countries in the Global South.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lab and fieldwork also touches upon types of research involving material collection in libraries, archives and/or similar locations. Libraries and archives have been closed in Belgium since government measures were imposed mid-March, thus making huge parts of research material unavailable and impeding the progress of research. The same holds for most libraries and archives abroad. Even if Belgian and/or foreign libraries/archives/etc. are to reopen soon and/or provide limited services, those researchers depending on foreign libraries/archives/repositories, in particular, might still not be able to access essential data and primary sources for their research for a much longer period of time (depending on the location).
The impact on these kinds of research should nog be neglected. For some researchers, the pandemic hindered (and/or continues to hinder indefinitely) the planned course of research. If in some cases research can be adapted and or redesigned on a short term, and initial expectations reconfigured – it is important not to forget that such changes (in most cases = a shift to digital alternatives) also affect the kinds of knowledge that are produced; digital alternatives and methods, e.g. in social sciences, rarely do fully substitute qualitative empirical research methods. In the short and long run, this poses urgent questions as to what forms these kinds of research can actually take, and what can be durable solutions to cope with the constraints suddenly imposed by the measures taken due to the pandemic. All these facets should be taken into account during future evaluations, job applications and others.
While we want to point out the gendered inequalities present in universities and beyond, we do not want to imply a binary view on gender. The term ‘women’ includes those who identify as, were socialized as, and/or are perceived as women.
On average women already take up more caring and household tasks at home, and the extra work brought about by the lockdown (for example caring for and teaching children) is more often carried out by women, which means that women have less time left for research/teaching/studying/etc.
Women are overrepresented in precarious or temporary jobs such as cleaning staff (women of color and/or with a migrant background in particular) and in non-permanent academic positions.
Women also generally have more teaching responsibilities, which are in most cases more heavily impacted than research by the current situation because of the shift to online and/or distance teaching.
Moreover, women in academic positions take up (and are expected to) more ‘service work’, such as dealing with individual requests from students, and also receive more complaints about their performance. In a time where contact with students happens digitally and lecturing has in many cases been replaced by individual assignments and tutoring, and where universities call for volunteers to assist in the organization of exams on campus, the imbalance in time spent on teaching and service work may therefore increase even more. Moreover, general calls for flexibility and ‘mildness’ in evaluations without specific guidelines may lead to gendered differences in approaches by and expectations from teaching staff.
These inequalities are already becoming visible for those in research positions. A study (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01294-9) has shown that women have been submitting less articles to academic journals than men since the beginning of the pandemic. Men, on the other hand, submit more articles. As publications are an important hiring and evaluation criterion, this could have a serious impact on women’s academic careers if the gendered nature of work is not taken into account.
Indeed, these realities have not been taken into account by the crisis management, as women are already underrepresented in the university staff (rectors, managers, lab directors, etc). It is to be expected that if this keeps being ignored the current crisis will only further exacerbate the existing implicit bias against women.
i. People with a migration background and/or people of colour
On different levels, people with a migration background are severely affected by the corona pandemic and the lockdown in particular. Primary and secondary schools have indicated that a large part of the pupils they could not reach during the lockdown are children with a migration background. It is likely that the lockdown will increase learning disabilities, causing children with a migration background to fall behind in their education in an often irreversible way. In the long run, this may severely affect the already low in-take of first-year students with a migration background at the university.
Although this has not been researched yet, it is highly plausible that universities also encounter difficulties to reach students with a migration background. This is very worrying, as many of them already have to face leeways at the start of their university training and have to cope with levels of discrimination and unconscious bias. As such, it is possible that the turn towards online teaching, certainly if continued on the long term, will strengthen existing disparities and create new thresholds for students with a migration background.
In line with inequalities in the labor market at large, poverty rates among people with a migration background are disproportionally high. Also at universities, people with a migration background, and especially women of color, are overrepresented in the lowest paid job categories, such as in cleaning staff, staff working in restaurants and other insecure positions. Some of the staff earn even less than the living wage of 14 euros per hour and may now face (additional) difficulties to pay monthly rents or make ends meet due to technical unemployment.
Additionally and in relation to a precarious financial situation, people with a migration background are disproportionately housed in precarious conditions (low-quality housing, bad or no internet connections, no technical equipment such as computers or laptop, etc.) which often makes it extremely difficult to combine telework, if applicable, with the pre-teaching of children or other care tasks.
Even though universities and colleges state that they value diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, religion, and/or having a migration background, the people in positions of power (academic positions, board members, management, …) and people with permanent contracts are nonetheless predominantly white.
While this section has mainly focused on people with a migration background, it does not elaborate in depth on all forms of oppression and discrimination present in our higher education institutions that relate to ethnicity, skin colour, religion, migration background and/or other ways in which people are racialized and othered. Regardless of the particular focus in this section, we would also like to explicitly acknowledge that mechanisms of discrimination and oppression take different forms for different people in different situations and that there are many intersections between these different forms of oppression. These (pre-existing) mechanisms of oppression and discrimination are in some cases also magnified by the current crisis and should be addressed. For example, COVID-19 has been fueling racism worldwide, especially but not limited to, towards people from Asian backgrounds. We urge governments and universities to take steps to prevent racism and to actively eliminate racialized and other inequalities among students and staff in higher education.
j. Staff with children at home and caring tasks more broadly
The corona crisis has once again made clear the difficulties of combining (full time) work with caring tasks, whether it is caring for children at home or taking care of friends and family members who need (additional) care. The way academia is structured now, including the way universities have approached people with caring tasks during the lockdown, either ignores the intensity and importance of the reproductive labour executed by its personnel or relies on the illusion that the combination of reproductive labour and professional labour is possible within the same time-space.
Even before the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, taking up caring tasks was already very difficult and sometimes impossible for those who also had to fulfill requirements on international mobility (which involves leaving behind family and social network), publishing and teaching (because of a lack of uninterrupted time to think and work), or because of financial constraints, or because of working too many hours at underpaid jobs or different periods of times in between temporary contracts. The current lockdown has increased these concerns, leading to financial insecurity (on the short term for those without or with decreased income, or on the long term because it limits future employment chances, also long after the pandemic) and has severed stress and mental health issues related to the (forceful) combining of care, household work, pre-teaching, etc. As such, the lockdown has aggravated the situation of people combining care and professional labour even to that extent that, when not being compensated for, in the longer term, the groups of people taking up a disproportionate amount of caring tasks might even further disappear from our universities. These inequalities exist along gendered, racialized, classed, abled, heteronormative and colonial lines; it is important to take these into account now. Therefore there is (1) a need for care leave: this leave needs to be financially high enough so that caregivers do not have additional financial concerns, which might force them to officially continue working (for those who are still employed); (2) a need to extend temporary contracts with the duration of the care leave, and more broadly the lockdown period and the need to assess CV’s in relation to the actual time worked; (3) a need for universities, funding agencies and governments to acknowledge the impossibility of combining caring tasks with (academic and other) work and a clear commitment to take into account the importance of care work for society in general and academia more specifically.
k. Staff and students involved in online teaching
The pandemic has significantly affected those involved in teaching and learning: lecturers, students, but also support staff, technical staff, etc. Since the imposed and rapid shift to online teaching, all involved have faced a disproportionate amount of additional work.
Teaching staff had to adapt their program and course material to the situation overnight, often without structural support, the changes in form and content remaining the responsibility of individual lecturers. Although the universities did try to assist teaching staff with general tips and tricks about online teaching and the tools at hand on sharepoints or centralized web pages, for most it became a demanding process of trial and error to try and provide a tailored pedagogical approach for their students. Even experienced lecturers did not necessarily dispose of the needed technical knowledge before the pandemic to self-evidently shift to online teaching. At the same time, support staff (usually only a handful of people for a whole university) that was mobilized to help out facilitate the shift to online teaching became overdemanded.
All involved in online teaching (both lecturers and students) report that this way of teaching and learning is much more burdensome. The workload increases for both parties, while the achieved results are sometimes hardly the same. The concentration span seems to be shorter online, and not all students can be reached and/or possess the required technical knowledge and material to further participate in education. It is the most vulnerable and those in the most precarious situations that may feel most left behind. Moreover, the lack of actual human interaction forms an obstacle to the learning process that in most cases consists not only of intellectual labour, but also inherently consists of care work. In addition to this, it should be taken into account that not all kinds of learning contents are as easily taught and assimilated online. Some (more practical or dense) materials demand more contact or supervision, thus further increasing the workload for those willing to provide what they believe is decent education. Moreover, it should not be neglected that the kinds of knowledge we produce and transfer take on different forms and modalities online; digital alternatives are no full-fledged substitutes for their real life counterparts. The group “désexcellents” at ULB has therefore launched a manifesto in which they call for a refusal of the continuation of online education next academic year (http://encourspasenligne.be/).
Although teaching and its continuation seemingly became the main drive and aim of the university during this pandemic, there is generally a lack of appreciation for teaching tasks at our universities. Teaching has since long not been valued in the same ways as research. As a result, people who have been flooded with (additional) teaching tasks during this period, also have a higher chance to pay for this at a later stage, because they had no time to work on research (PhD, publications, …). Many research grants also do not allow researchers to spend time on teaching tasks, and when they do, only for a very limited amount of time. A certain redistribution of labour to alleviate the impact of the crisis for those overloaded with teaching responsibilities would, however, have been welcome. Indeed, it might be those involved in teaching only (often temporary contracts, partial employment) and who saw their workloads double or triple in the last months, who will remain the invisible victims of this crisis, as teaching is supposedly their only task and the impact of the pandemic on their work will be hard to measure with hindsight. Not to mention those combining a significantly increased teaching workload with care or other reproductive work.
This crisis only unveils that teaching forms an essential part of academia, and that teaching experience and staff need to be treated accordingly. It uncovers the stringent necessity of additional support for those with teaching duties (which requires additional money). It should also be made possible for people who are mainly doing research to help out with teaching without facing repercussions in the longer run (funding agencies and universities should take measures here).
The different subsections have shown the variety of struggles students and staff in higher education are facing due to corona. The current crisis unveils systemic weaknesses that were already very much present before corona, but has magnified these issues in an unprecedented way. We therefore suggest a series of measures and actions to be taken, which could provide relief in the short term, while also working towards an alternative future for (Belgian) academia. We invite and encourage universities and university colleges, governments, funding agencies, labour unions, student organisations, and all other people and organisations concerned with higher education to think with us how to work towards a different university along the following lines.
The corona pandemic has shown that reproductive labour and care work – often overlooked, trivialized or taken for granted – form a cornerstone of our daily lives and societies. Academia should finally start valuing all reproductive labour and care work in society as well as on its own campuses. This implies that the way that higher education is structured and organized should allow and support those doing this essential work. The perception of the ‘always on’ academic while taking for granted the reproductive labour and care work that is needed to ‘be productive’ needs to shift towards more humane labour conditions for all productive and reproductive labour. Therefore, care work and social reproductive labour should be recognized as legitimate forms of labour in the first place; our colleagues cleaning staff, nursery workers and staff of student restaurants need better working conditions (wages above minimum wage, permanent/statutory contracts, insourcing of all staff working at our university campuses, …) rather than being treated as disposable; care leave should not lead to financial and other repercussions. Academia needs to shift towards a conception of labour (for all employed and all enrolled) that is compatible with and valuing of care work, adapting evaluation and funding criteria, hiring practices, working conditions and other procedures essential in building a career within its structures accordingly (e.g. allowing part time work, extending temporary contracts with the duration of care leave, etc).
The above also requires taking into account the material conditions in which we work and study. The pandemic although affecting all, has most profoundly affected the most vulnerable already – also within universities. The university, rather than actively questioning forms of social inequality and injustice present in society, still too often blindly further reproduces these within its structures; on the one hand by failing to recognize and/or acknowledge difference, simultaneously by hierarchizing sorts of labour and not actively valuing all categories of people within the university in the same ways. We need to start by recognizing existing inequalities (along gendered, racialized, classed, abled, heteronormative and colonial lines) and be aware of the harm that non-differentiated approaches to labour, teaching, evaluation, etc. can do.
With all universities staking on the continuation of education, the pandemic also revealed the central role teaching plays in our universities. Academia urgently needs to (re)value education and those involved in teaching. There is a need to decrease workload (and useless administration and output metrics) and increase backing for teaching, coaching and mental support. Otherwise we risk that those who now spend (additional) time on teaching will disappear from universities in the long run because of a lack of publications and other research related output, or that teaching staff will burn out due to the infeasible workload.
Valuing education also requires acknowledging that teaching is more than passing on information. We should not maintain the illusion that the current shift to online or remote teaching can substitute actual physical teaching and learning, not for lecturers and not for students. What is more, the current pandemic also forces us into specific ways of doing research and teaching that are considered possible online and from ‘home’. Even if some types of research and teaching materials allow for online and digital approaches, there is no way these can substitute our rich pedagogies, epistemologies and methodologies which require social, face-to-face interaction, care work and physical access to specific field sites, laboratories, archives and libraries. As such, the current pandemic severely impacts the types of knowledge we produce and transfer.
To recognize difference and inequality and to value teaching, reproductive labour and care work as well as research also means to allow for alternative ways of building an academic career, rather than further institutionalizing forms of societal precarity and an extremely competitive work environment where preponderantly publication and citation metrics count, and where strategic decisions might take the upper hand over quality and ethics. Moreover, this kind of conceptualisation of academic work and careers too often invisibilizes the many other sorts of academic and non-academic work that keep our universities going. It goes without saying that taking these different issues into account also means tackling causes for mental health problems.