4. New/Normal? – What the university did

 New Normal - What the university did

Keep on keeping on
In terms of institutional policies, I didn’t think they were that bad. I started working from home on the 13th March, I remember that date very well, and there was never any push from the university for me to come back, and I was able to keep working from home. Maybe that is the privilege of working not in a lab situation, for example. So, all the training, and teaching, and research could be done online. So, that was something that I think worked well although I don’t think it worked well for the students. There have been some aspects that I thought could have been better in terms of rewarding people, acknowledging or supporting. It was like we were expected to just carry on, and keep reading, and keep writing, keep doing this, while we were given all these care responsibilities within the institution, and then we are evaluated by the same type of markers as people that were able to get out of those roles into roles that are more valued, even within the pandemic, which is just absurd. What should be valued here is people who are actually pulling together and really supporting the students and staff, and not just going after the same logic that was in place before the COVID. So, in that sense, that is where I am not positive. I don’t think that COVID has created an impressive meaning about how universities work, and that is actually quite sad.   #6

Good in parts
The University implemented several official shutdowns where staff were not expected to work. Moreover, we have a work email policy of only communicating between 8am-6pm. Both have been a life saver, especially the first shutdown during Easter 2020, as it meant I could have a guilt-free break from what felt like handling an overwhelming amount of student anxiety, upset, and anger. Autumn 2020 – the return to campus was awful. Coronavirus cases increased rapidly amongst my supervisees, and face to face teaching was terrifying. It was also upsetting following what was happening in the news and then having to go in and teach in rooms that didn’t always feel safe. Then they recognised that people were struggling to take leave. So, they said everyone can roll over ten days into the new academic year as work of leave, but they only let you do that until Christmas. And then if you hadn’t taken it by Christmas, they took it off you. It’s, like, but I’m a teaching academic, how can I take this time off? So, yes, I think I ended up losing the leave. And it’s continued to be a problem, so I’ve asked for some cover for exam boards that I’m running this summer because if I didn’t get cover, I’d end up basically not being able to take any, kind of, proper holiday. And the response I got back from it was you’ve got to step up and work your hours.   #19

Go outside and smell the flowers
I joined the growing concern of our workloads just going through the roof and them sending a bulletin every Friday telling us that we should learn to crochet or join a knitting circle or go outside and smell the flowers. It all felt very, very tokenistic. There has been a wellbeing group set up at the university but it has focused almost entirely on student wellbeing. They have been prompted latterly to incorporate staff wellbeing into it. I think we got an extra day. I think they gave us an extra day’s leave.   #4

Look after your mental health
If I think back to the university management’s handling of the care of staff and students over that time, I am aware of competing ‘voices’ in the messages that came my way. I am only a lecturer so I cannot surely say that what I was aware of represents anyone else. What I can say for certain, though, is that the message was not simply – take care. I was aware of many competing indications of how I was expected to behave and it confused and, at times, distressed me. One set of voices that I was aware of, was that driving to support staff well-being. That monster is a greedy and insistent beast. It needs constant attention or it will overwhelm you and stop you doing your work. And so the university provided lots of (time-consuming) self-help resources you ‘could complete at your own pace’. They paid for an app that would support mental health and was, they said, completely anonymous. I made sure not to set up the account with my university email, though. And I did set it up because I had a personal tutee who was seriously at risk of disappearing under the strain. We did it together, and we had a sort of joke about how feeble it was as a means to address the mental anguish she was enduring. At least we were smiling. In the last few months, I was besieged by messages about teaching that were urgent and important; I saw marketing-style announcements in the media and social media about research ‘opportunities’ – opportunities for anyone not up to their eyes in teaching and admin (not to mention having children or older family members to care for) – as well as feeling like colleagues were falling by the wayside. A constant undercurrent was the wheedling insistence that I look after my mental health; self care became another task I was responsible for being great at just to show I was managing. And it was important to give that impression. I was nearing the submission of my probation report and, having seen how those experiencing difficulties were abandoned, was eager not to appear as if I was buckling under the strain.   #3

Feeling ‘shelved’
I feel like they’ve forgotten that they’ve got PGR’s because we work from home and we’re just ticking away in the background and they haven’t had to manage timetabling and all of that kind of thing. I feel like they’ve just kind of shelved us and not gone back to us. We had an email in May with a survey to say we’re looking at reopening the study space, if we did it, when would you use it? How many times a week would you use it? Would you like to book a slot or just turn up? All sorts of things. Would you use our computers or would you bring your own? All that kind of thing, which I filled in, and we’ve heard absolutely nothing since. No results from that survey, no plan for this term. I’ve been waiting for something to come out to tell us whether we’re allowed to go onto campus or not.   #28

A sense of blame
The NSS results are in and represent a big fall for those areas I manage. I am naturally someone who feels responsible for things going wrong, even when it is beyond my control, and the pandemic coupled with some extraordinary decisions at institutional level created an environment where it was almost impossible for me to do anything to ameliorate the position students found themselves in. That said, I can’t help but reflect on what I did wrong and are now wrapped up in concerns that I may be in trouble and held accountable – although I have no evidence of this Even though we were promised light touch in the pandemic there’s a sense of blame. I suddenly feel very alone, very, very alone and a little bit hung out to dry, so I have written a couple of emails now formally expressing my concern about the staff/student ratio and the lack of my usual ability to effect positive change and work with teams. We await meetings on the naughty step.   #4

Tone deaf
My institution has just published some student survey data from an internal survey. Basically, they’re saying … students are positive about the fairness of the assessment that we’ve had in place this year, but they are less than 50% positive about most things. It’s so tone deaf to how hard everyone’s worked, how knackered everybody is. I’m probably feeling because I’m so super-tired, a bit touchy about it but I just think that is, shows a lack of care. I mean, could they not have said – several thousand students graduated because of you, thank you. No, clearly not. #7

Not a healthy space
A part of me has realised that the institution doesn’t give a crap about us (beyond the ‘outputs’ and the ‘visibility’ and the kind of student ratings we can get for them)…and the more you do and the more capable you are, the more they will expect and the more they will stretch you. I had my appraisal the other week, and my line manager actually used the metaphor of an elastic band to describe us, and he recognised that we are stretched. I think in academia it just became sharper in focus during the pandemic, that they actually obviously don’t really care about us as people, that it is just about what we can deliver – and how much they can pull out of us for the minimal cost and for the maximising student customers’ wellbeing – well, not wellbeing, our customer satisfaction as surveyed in the NSS. These things just became so clear and sharp and all the caring about our mental health and stuff. Although I think individuals care, I don’t think the actual system does. It just isn’t evident that it is a good healthy space.   #9

The power plays are back
It was almost like that burning building kind of syndrome, you had to get everybody out, we had to protect students, we had to protect staff, we had to support everyone, “What are we going to do about assessment? We need to make a decision.” The sense that we had to work together to make the best possible decision in the circumstances. You had to get everybody in the room together. We’d suddenly be having meetings with thirty, forty, fifty people in a room and making a decision in a way that you just wouldn’t see normally; academic staff, professional services, senior leaders getting together and making these decisions really rapidly and really collegiately. But we’re now seeing that fragmentation of different interests, all of them valid but all kind of strategic interests coming back to play again. It feels like personal politics, personal interests as well as strategic, all the things that hold up universities and all the power plays that go on around that. The clarity and urgency of the pandemic seems to be gone. The silos are not fully back up, but the barriers are certainly being rebuilt between Schools, between work areas. The levelling of the playing field and more equal voices offered (to some extent) by online meetings, of the focus on emergency support, has receded.   #21

I can’t praise them enough
When I started, they posted me a desk and a chair and a laptop, and then when I was really pregnant they bought me another chair because I was in pain. They sent me a foot stool and a hand rest. I couldn’t praise them enough for supporting home working to be safe and comfortable. At my last university, I’d been working with them for a year, but there wasn’t a budget. So I was really shocked that not only was I getting a laptop but they just said: have you got a desk? I was like well, I am using a piece of plywood and they were horrified, so they said – we’ll send you this. I felt bad and ordered like the cheapest ones, but I am sure I could have ordered the most expensive stuff and they wouldn’t have cared. And I am on a fixed term contract so you don’t normally get treated that well. I couldn’t praise them enough really, they’ve been fantastic.   #23

I feel very blessed to be working here
The leaders where I work were amazing, I mean I’ve seen lots of things on Twitter as often it can be quite negative can’t it. I did email, which I don’t often do actually, just to keep saying to them thank you so much because you’ve given us permission to go for a walk, you’ve given us permission – they literally kept saying your mental health and your wellbeing is our priority and they really meant it. And my line manager was absolutely fantastic, you know she was absolutely brilliant. She was like no I just want you to take half day off, or just take a day off and don’t do anything to do with work, I am going to pick this stuff up for you. I can’t even talk about it without … I feel quite emotional because I am so proud of her. I mean I have always loved working there, but it really does show what a special place it is, just fantastic colleagues from all levels in all different roles. There isn’t anybody that I felt wasn’t supportive throughout this whole time, so yes. Feel very, very blessed to be working there.   #11

A stuck record
I think that the pandemic has brought new spaces for people to say well this doesn’t work if you’ve got different abilities or for people who are not heterosexual, or people that have caring responsibilities, or people that are very, very poor. I think more of the Covid way of doing things is recognising that not everybody’s got a big house and a quiet room with somebody cooking their meals for them. It would be good if there were small pots of funding for people to do some research into the effects of Covid on, like, within their discipline, short studies. At the same time, there was still the stuck record where it’s all about we’re celebrating this achievement, we’re world beating in this and this huge grant won by this department and so and so’s changing the world and, you know, spotlight on this amazing person … I worry about the way that the sector is going to separate people into the ones that are going to drive themselves and the people that are going to be exploited to do the stuff that is left which will be the admin and I imagine quite a lot of the undergraduate teaching.   #3



Participants’ accounts
What the university did
The return
Future flexibility