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Uni cuts will lead to health problems for academics

The consensus on the recent A$2.3 billion funding cuts to the tertiary sector is they will do more harm than good. Plenty of commentators foresee diminishing quality of teaching and research, possible…

The recent cuts to universities are only likely to make the health problem growing in the academic community worse. Stressed academic image www.shutterstock.com

The consensus on the recent A$2.3 billion funding cuts to the tertiary sector is they will do more harm than good.

Plenty of commentators foresee diminishing quality of teaching and research, possible increases in class sizes, job losses, a tumble in our international rankings and a less accessible tertiary sector for disadvantaged students.

I have no argument with these claims.

But what bothers me, indeed, what leaves me nothing less than gob-smacked, is that in all the ink that has been spilled in response to the higher education minister’s bombshell, there has been little or no mention of the cost of such cuts to the health and wellbeing of university staff.

Research carried out in Australia, the UK, USA, and elsewhere over the last decade or so has clearly shown that large numbers of academics are exhausted, overloaded, demoralised and depressed. Many are suffering from insomnia and disorientation, as well as from physical illnesses related to workplace stress.

A 2002 survey of 8,732 Australian university staff found that approximately 50% of those interviewed were are at risk of psychological illness, compared to 19% of the Australian population overall. There is little doubt that in the decade since this study was published, the situation has worsened.

We are now surrounded, to borrow a phrase from British sociologist Professor Roger Burrows, by a “deep affective somatic crisis” which threatens to engulf us. This “somatic”, or bodily, crisis is connected to the wide ranging changes in universities driven by neoliberalism.

Under these changes, academics suffer from ever-increasing workloads, ever-decreasing control in the workplace, diminished job security, increased casualisation, expanding surveillance and performance measures, the fragmentation of collegiality and the associated rise of a culture of competition and permanent distrust. Where, then, is the collective outrage that such corrosive changes surely call for?

The success of neoliberalism lies not least in its production of what education researchers Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel refer to as the “new enterprise individual”. The individual who embodies and reproduces — whether knowingly or not — the logic of market fundamentalism.

Academic survival now requires that we all, to varying degrees, become such individuals; that we take individual responsibility for our work and our health and wellbeing. But at the same time, inhabiting an ethos in which there is no space for legitimate debate and where critique is treated as seditious, turns us into our own worst enemies.

It is a survival strategy which, ironically, is hampering our survival rather than ensuring it. If academics are to avoid being entirely overwhelmed by the ever-expanding beast of the modern university system, we need to turn our thoughts to our own contexts and experiences.

We need to ask questions about the “enterprise university” and the neoliberal technologies of massification, marketization, and new public management which birthed the behemoth that is swallowing us whole. We need to refuse the idea that wellbeing is solely the responsibility of the individual. Afterall, if we leave things as they are we are likely see a rise in absenteeism, presenteeism, worker’s compensation, the loss of highly-trained staff or re-staffing, and, of course, the financial, emotional and physical costs borne by academic staff.

At the same time, the institutional regimes (from universities to governments) that regulate academic life need to be called on to address the crisis in which we find ourselves. They need to make staff health and wellbeing an organisational priority. In the UK, some universities and colleges have adopted standards of good management practice developed by the Health and Safety Executive to help employers prevent work place stress.

Surely, in the face of a crisis of these proportions, it is not too much to ask that Australian institutions do likewise.