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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

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.

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31 Comments sorted by

  1. Ronald Ostrowski

    logged in via Facebook

    When I finished reading this article which points to expenditure cuts as a cause of workplace stress due to over work I shook my head and said, at loud, "You gotta be kiddin' me". What this article describes not only pertains to the university sector, but can be found in many workplaces, both in Australia and internationally.

    As for the expenditure cuts there seems to be an inference in the article that workloads per each academic will increase. I suppose it goes to the old generalisation of doing more with less. I personally don't see the connection. As far as I can tell many tertiary education institutions will opt for cutting programs rather than reduce staff in providing quality education and research in the remaining programs.

    1. Judith Olney


      In reply to Ronald Ostrowski

      There may also be a decrease in student numbers due to the cuts in student startup scholarships. Students just may not be able to take on yet more debt in order to study at university.

  2. Paul Rhodes

    Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney

    I appreoaciate you speaking out for academics in this article and its great to see so many lately on the Conversation but be careful not to speak for us all..I worry alot about the changeing culture of universities and bureaucratization BUT when I compare the conditions and rewards compared to my corporate friends I find that we can come across as a little entitled and spoilt in academia...there are many problems but there are also very many rewards...sabbaticals? come and go as you please? travel? do what you love? We are under pressure but my health is doing fine

  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Even though there was the study in 2002 Nikki, it seems that the academic planet may not have willingly been dragged kicking and screaming into the new universe.

    Whether we like it or not and from many peoples' perspectives, there's a lot not to be liked about it, it seems that with each passing decade, the next brings an even greater rate of change than we ever previously experienced and we have no end of media attention on that via various articles.

    That UK article Nikki had one thing that…

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    1. CH Soames


      In reply to Greg North

      A survival-of-the-fittest economy and workplace culture is a fine thing so long as coping skills are acquired in a self-guided way. That will have the ultimate effect of raising the standard of endeavour among non-survivors, while a positive spin is put on it by the survivors, who have thrived enough to have the spare time, energy and mojo for promulgating the system.

      As they say, 'history is written by the winners'.

  4. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Having just come off a 10 hour night shift I am concerned that I may not be able to sleep for worrying about the health problems of academics.
    Mark me up as another victim of the Gonski reforms.

  5. Darren Parker

    logged in via Facebook

    A little bit of the real world creeping into the ivory towers of academia then?

    1. George Takacs


      In reply to Darren Parker


      I have been working in academia for over twenty five years. During that time I have seen several people come across to academia from industry, generally expecting a more pleasant working life than in industry. After a few years, most of them go back to industry. What does that tell you?

  6. Peter Kardashinsky

    Retired Engineer

    As pointed out in an earlier comment, this article describes trends not limited to the university sector, evident in many workplaces, both in Australia and internationally. However, I am left wondering how much of the stress that is described can be attributed to having to deal with an increasingly convoluted administrative system within the universities themselves.

    I raise this point after having a debate with my daughter on the subject of university funding cuts. She was visiting last weekend…

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    1. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Peter Kardashinsky

      "Surprisingly, she gave qualified support to university funding cuts, if they resulted in streamlined and efficient administrative system."

      Never happen. The administration has the ability to mobilise vast resources to protect itself. In fact, they can probably justify putting on a few extra admin staff to draft a white paper review of how they will respond to an atmosphere of staff cuts.

  7. Katherine W

    logged in via email

    This article is long overdue. My husband is an academic and has had three stress related cases of shingles in the last eighteen months. A third of the academics in his department were retrenched last year. The uni is no longer an 'ivory tower' - if it ever was - for academics to live an easy life, cloistered from the world. And when the cuts come through, the uni expects fewer people to do the same jobs, resulting in massive classes (300 in first year, for example), high stress loads for academics, an increasingly junior and casualised academic workforce, and a disregard for staff who have worked there for years. On the one hand we deplore our declining educational standards, but on the other we seem to think cuts to unis that put pressure on those who teach and research are fine. Go figure.

  8. Citizen SG


    let's suppose the author is correct and 2.3B removed from the university sector will lead to illness from increased stress on academic staff (I note that similar morbidities for university administrative staff is not mentioned...).

    The fed government has basically switched 2.3B from tertiary to 1-12 year education. Given what i know about the social determinants of health I would have thought that 2.3 B injected into increasing the success of the next generation of children might lead to a net reduction in health problems in our society (albeit over a longer time frame).

    Moreover, should job security be lessened in the tertiary industry I pose this question:
    'what sector is th emost likely to have the capacity to find work in their chosen field or have the capacity to retrain into another field?'

  9. Citizen SG


    and another thing:
    I'm an academic but I feel much sorrier for the hundreds of car industry workers and orchardists about to hit hard times than I do about academics.

  10. Phil S

    Physics PhD Student

    "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."

    Who has little doubt the situation has worsened? You? Everyone?

    I'm not saying you are wrong, but I always find it amusing when someone stretches research outcomes towards their goalposts, especially on a website that prides itself on providing facts.

    1. Citizen SG


      In reply to Phil S

      I wonder if the author is conflating 'risk of psychological illness' with actual presentations of psychological illness?

      20% of the australian population had a mental disorder in the twelve months prior to the 2007 mental health survey. Therefore, of that 20%, at least 20% would have been at risk of mental health disorder and went on to develop that disorder. What percentage of the australian population is 'at risk' of developing a mental health disorder but does not go on to develop that disorder…

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    2. Phil S

      Physics PhD Student

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Very interesting information, thanks Seamus.

      I've also noticed that the Australian research showing that academics are "exhausted, overloaded, demoralised and depressed" was funded by the NTEU. At least the author has tried to hide her association with the NTEU.

      I'm interested to see how these funding cuts pan out. So far I haven't seen academics running around panicking. That may be because we underwent a large "cull" in my faculty a couple of years ago and the getting rid of more people would only compromise the programs. The reaction to these cuts is far less than the reaction to those cuts imposed by "new management" in the faculty.

    3. Ross Balch

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Phil S

      Her membership in the NTEU is listed bellow the author details? Unless this is a recent addition I do not see how she tried to hide that fact. That sounds like conspiracy mongering to me.

      Not that takes anything away from the rest of the point you were making.

    4. Phil S

      Physics PhD Student

      In reply to Ross Balch

      Oh crap...that was honestly meant to say "hasn't tried to hide..."

      Hopefully everyone can see the sentence makes much more sense if it reads:
      "At least the author hasn't tried to hide her association with the NTEU."

      and I'm usually so careful at proof reading comments...

  11. Judith Olney


    I wonder how many health problems students will end up with from the cuts to the student start up scholarships. What about the stress of having to take on yet more debt just to be able to pay for books and equipment? What about those who wont be able to take on more debt, and will just not bother going to University? Its not like youth allowance or Austudy is enough to actually be able to feed, house and clothe yourself on, let alone by expensive books and equipment. We will likely see health problems…

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  12. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Frankly, all those factory workers and shop assistants and cleaners, whose taxes keep academia afloat, aren't working hard enough and aren't paying enough tax. Don't they realise the stress they're causing university lecturers?

    1. Darren Parker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Imagine if the Ford and GMH assembly line workers who are losing their jobs hand over fist were aware of the stress in academia? Why, it might be enough to do tip them right over the edge!

    2. Katherine W

      logged in via email

      In reply to Darren Parker

      James and Darren, this isn't a competition about who is suffering the most. Everyone deserves a safe workplace environment, and that is unrelated to job loss - either by uni staff or those in the motor vehicle industry. This issue shouldn't be sidelined into some sort of class war.

    3. Citizen SG


      In reply to Katherine W

      No, but actual levels of mental health in academia should be quantified.

      The author has uses a 2002 study (presumably whinfield et al) to link the statement '50% of academics are undergoing psychological stress' with the statement '50% of academics report psychological stress which is likely to lead to increased mental illness'. Stress levels do not always correlate with incidence of mental illness, after all the levels of mental illness diagnosis in the Defence Force is lower than the general population.

      Whinfield et al also states that levels of job satisfaction in australian academia is high, but notes in a follow up study in 2008 that these levels are declining.

      In the absence of any data on mental health presentations from academics one is forced to conclude that this is a NTEU beat-up, which is a shame since I give them a fair whack of money every year.

    4. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Katherine W

      Hi Katherine, I agree, of course, we all need a safe workplace. However, isn't this up to an individual university to manage? It seems to me government funding for a sector shouldn't be determined by the conditions employees want.

  13. John Perry


    As a school teacher, I'm kind of hoping that the money coming from university funding and redirected towards school funding means that a lot of the well educated people in academia will be coming our way as well.

    We could use an injection into our brains trust: and it's not that bad, you know!

  14. Andrew Smith

    Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

    Not unlike Europe where there are insiders, i.e. permanent employees of baby boomer generation with permanent tenure and full benefits, while outsiders, i.e. generally younger who can get an internship, if lucky.

    In Australia, I recall neither universities nor NTEU complaining as the government under pressure from anti immigration and anti population "advocates" panicked and made tough student visa restrictions.

    On informed estimate puts the job losses in international education and related at 30,000..... mostly teaching, administrative etc. on casual or short term contracts. Meanwhile, in some institutions, union membership precluded or harmed possibility of contract extensions, while the same management were all union members?

  15. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    There seem to be quite a number of Occupational Health and Safety Acts in place which require "proactive" steps to be taken in the event of a predictable threat to physical or psychological well-being.
    These various acts require employees to be aware of the provisions of the act in order that they are "proactive" in protection of their own health.
    So cut the tears brainiacs and go to your employers and/or the courts.
    Your options could not be clearer!

  16. Joseph Pugliese

    Professor of Cultural Studies and Research Director of the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University

    This article stages an urgent and timely articulation of the persistent downgrading of academic conditions in our universities -- an international phenomenon that is affecting universities in the UK, USA and Europe. At the very same time that universities are compelled to position themselves as innovators contributing to a globalised economy, their funding is being cut and they are having to do more with less. The university is not an ivory tower: it is fully enmeshed within the complex cultural…

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