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The impact of Covid-19 on staff in UK higher education

The pandemic adversely impacted many industries – however, little is known about its impact on staff in UK higher education (HE) and whether employer support was satisfactory at that time.

A research project, funded internally by The Open University, explored how the pandemic impacted academic and professional staff in higher education throughout the UK. There were nearly 300 respondents to an online survey earlier this year.

Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Financial Management Dr Rasha Kassem led the pan-University research team, supported by her Business School colleague Dr Shraddha Verma together with OU colleagues Dr Kerry Jones and Dr Soraya Kouadri and Ruth Whitney from the OU in Scotland.

Most staff said that the pandemic had adversely impacted their well-being and mental health, particularly those with known disabilities, caring responsibilities, younger staff (in their 20s) and staff in Scotland. Most said their workload increased and was difficult to manage, particularly females, full-time employees, younger staff (in their 20s), parents and those with caring responsibilities. Females, younger staff (in their 20s) and those with known disabilities and caring responsibilities were more likely to say that the pandemic negatively impacted their personal lives.

Academics reported their inability to engage students through online teaching, the difficulty in measuring students’ understanding and performance online, and a sense of detachment between academics and students. There were challenges in adopting teaching materials for online learning, and more students than usual had extensions, which caused extra work for academic staff. Some researchers found it difficult to collaborate with colleagues without being physically together; there were delays in research plans due to data access issues or access to labs, and some reported no time for research due to excessive teaching load.

Younger participants (in their 20s) were more likely to report the pandemic had adversely impacted their professional and career development plans. This was due to dismissals and redundancies; employers stopped all professional development efforts – ‘the focus was on students, not staff’, all internal staff development (apart from mandatory training) was stopped, and mentorship was not available; conferences and courses were cancelled; and online conferences were not popular, with comments such as ‘not the same over Zoom’. The learning and development experiences that staff would gain simply by being around the team and contributing to conversations / asking for support were no longer available. Some staff could not pass their probation or finish their qualifications due to needing to complete specific training that did not run during lockdown.

And the pandemic’s impact on the personal lives of staff was mixed. Nobody missed the commute as it created extra free time for some, or extra work hours for others. There was an increased flexibility in some staff schedules, allowing them to get chores done during the day that would otherwise fill the evenings. Some staff enjoyed spending more time with their family but many others found that it was difficult having family around all the time. Others reported that relationships suffered from the strain of having too much time together. Parents appreciated being more involved in their children’s lives but found the constant distractions difficult, and home schooling was a considerable obstacle to productivity. For some, working from home felt more like ‘living at work’, and it was difficult to switch off.

Dr Rasha Kassem
Research project team lead


The research team plans more research on this subject; in particular, how universities and policymakers should support staff in higher education during health crises.