Australia’s higher education workforce has literally been decimated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mass forced redundancies and non-renewal of casual contracts were highly stressful. And now some disciplines and academics who committed their lives to teaching feel publicly invalidated as unnecessary in the reconstruction of the sector to produce what the government deems to be “job-ready graduates”.
Our recent review finds academics in Australia and New Zealand were suffering high levels of occupational stress well before COVID-19. Recent upheavals only added to existing problems. This is likely to jeopardise recruitment and retention of staff even in the very areas, such as health, teaching and medicine, where the government expects high future demand.
Our research team members are now turning their attention to the impacts of anonymous student feedback on academics’ well-being. Preliminary findings suggest it’s having extreme impacts on the mental health of some of the workforce that remains, especially early career academics. We are also investigating their perceptions of the impacts of this feedback on teaching quality and academic standards.
What are the main sources of stress?
The review of university teaching staff over the past 20 years found five key factors contributed to stress and distress:
balancing teaching and research workloads
lack of job security in an increasingly casualised workforce
the role transition from professional to academic practice in applied disciplines — for example, a shift-working nurse moving from a hospital setting to teaching in a university
role differences for academics compared to other university staff such as administrative and IT staff as most academics have to work after hours and on weekends to manage their workload and meet performance indicators for research and teaching (including student feedback scores)
the overarching impacts on the sector of “new public managerialism”.
Academics are facing tighter managerial control and greater surveillance. Every facet of their role is subject to oversight and regulation.
The great changes in technology have contributed to this situation. While technology may enable and enhance the educational experience online, it’s also increasingly used to monitor and manage performance.
Universities that have embraced performance management, reduced the professional autonomy of teaching staff and demanded increased productivity have the lowest rates of job satisfaction. Australian academics’ satisfaction with their jobs and their institutions’ management is very low compared to other countries.
What about the students?
Ultimately, overworking and micro-managing teaching staff may lead to burnout and reduced enthusiasm for teaching. Additionally, an overemphasis on student retention and happiness may contribute to an erosion of academic standards.
Increasingly, though, the performance, promotion and continuing tenure of academics are directly aligned with measures of student satisfaction and success. The number of students who pass is one such measure.
This means many academics must struggle to balance keeping students happy, ensuring they succeed, while trying to maintain professional and academic standards. Many must also find the time to produce “quality” research outputs in an increasingly competitive environment.
Student satisfaction is now almost universally gauged through online surveys. These include anonymous verbatim student comments.
So far, several hundred academics have completed our research team’s voluntary survey. The majority report receiving comments that were distressing, offensive or disrespectful. Even though these student comments are personally hurtful, many report that such comments are not redacted before being distributed, sometimes widely, within the university.
Universities appear to neglect the impacts of this feedback on academic well-being and reputation. One respondent wrote:
“I have watched colleagues go through a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of sorts when evaluation swings around. They have a physiological response: sweaty palms and rapid heart rate.”
It remains to be seen how extensive this experience is and how the problem can be managed so an experienced, qualified and enthusiastic workforce is maintained.
If you are an Australian health academic who would like to be involved in this research on the influence of anonymous narrative student feedback, please consider completing this ten-minute survey.