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“The impact of the pandemic on academic workers and work - the Canadian experience”, by Brenda Austin-Smith.

published 18 December 2020 updated 18 December 2020
written by:

Almost overnight in mid-March of 2019, academic staff at universities and colleges heeded the call to stay home and isolate. They transitioned to remote teaching to ensure the education continuity of millions of students during the public health emergency. Campuses were closed down, shuttering labs, and stalling research. Some libraries initially stayed open, then were also closed due to health and safety concerns.

Myriad workplace issues arose, and questions poured into academic staff associations.  How do I teach my applied, hands on, collaborative or lab classes? How do I assess my students in an on-line environment? Can I renegotiate the terms of my research grant? Do I have to euthanize lab animals? Will I be compensated for the extra work for moving all my classes online? This question is particularly acute for those with per course appointments who are more likely to be women, Indigenous and racialized staff.

While some questions were resolved in a matter of weeks, the pandemic had created a set of unique, new challenges that begged to be understood and answered. One of the biggest of the big picture questions looming centred around facilitating a safe return to campuses — whenever that was to occur — and the short, medium and long-term impacts of the pandemic on post-secondary education (PSE) and the working lives of academic staff.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is the national voice for academic staff representing 72,000 teachers, librarians, researchers, general staff and other academic professionals at some 125 universities and colleges across Canada.  To better understand how the pandemic was impacting academic staff and the academic job, we surveyed our members. As an outspoken defender of academic freedom and workers’ rights, CAUT’s goal was to get a snapshot of the impact of the pandemic on workload, teaching, research and mental health.

We asked about supports and resources needed to help staff through the crisis and about their feelings about the future, as well as questions of identity, contract and job type to see if these may be factors in differing perspectives. Over 4,300 academic staff from all ten provinces in Canada participated in the survey. As with any crowdsourced data, the findings cannot be applied to the overall post-secondary staff population across the country. However, the results offer valuable insights on the experiences of participants.

Unsurprisingly, what we learned was both illuminating, yet not unexpected: Top concerns include challenges of remote teaching, workload, health and safety and job security. More specifically:

  • The rapid shift to remote teaching meant increased workload for many. The majority are working more than before COVID-19 with almost one-third working an additional 10 or more hours per week.
  • Work has been reduced or eliminated for about 1 in 10 academic staff. Women and racialized staff are more likely to be working less or to be no longer working because they are more represented among part-time staff or because they are more likely to be caring for dependents.
  • There are positives and negatives associated with remote teaching through online platforms. The biggest challenges identified were lack of face-to-face interactions with students, followed by struggling with technology. 68% are worried about the impact of COVID on quality of teaching, yet a majority also feel that remote learning could lead to innovations.
  • Research has been highly impacted. Two out of three professors and instructors are researching less or not at all. The top five reasons: the inability to hold or attend conferences, dependent care, inability to access labs or offices, not able to conduct in-person research, and teaching demands. Women and racialized staff were more likely to have dependent care as one of the reasons for the negative impact on research.
  • Job insecurity is high – especially for part-time workers. Only 1 in 5 part-timers feel job secure and more than 1 in 3 fear lay-offs in the next 12 months.
  • Staff feel left out of decision-making. Only 1 in 4 feel they are consulted before decisions that affect them are made, despite bicameral or shared governance structures at most post-secondary institutions.
  • Stress and anxiety levels are much higher. Eighty-four per cent of respondents reported somewhat or much higher stress due to anxiety over the pandemic, balancing work and dependent care, challenges with teaching and research, and job insecurity. Women are more likely than men to report somewhat higher/much higher stress & anxiety levels and concerns over work-life balance.
  • Safe childcare, access to mental health services, technological assistance and teaching resources are among top supports identified by respondents as needed.  Many called for smaller class sizes, reduced teaching load, more teaching assistants and additional administrative supports.

In response to the many concerns brought to light in our survey, CAUT has developed recommendations, for PSE institutions and governments, to help address the issues facing post-secondary teachers and staff, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. In recognition that the pandemic has amplified existing inequalities in the academy, we highlighted 10 actions that academic staff associations and unions should take to continue efforts to advance equity during the pandemic.

We ask institutional administrators to work closely with academic staff associations, other campus unions, and Joint Health and Safety Committees on a comprehensive workplace safety plan until the risks from exposure to COVID-19 are contained; provide paid sick leave measures and extended health benefits for all contract academic staff; and, improve mental health benefits for all staff.  Additionally, academic staff, and in particular contract academic staff, should be properly compensated for additional preparation or instructional time; those with disabilities and/or with dependent care responsibilities should be accommodated; and academic freedom and collegial governance protected robustly.

There have been some successes in Canada with associations making gains for members, whether it be the suspension of student evaluation surveys, or additional compensation for contract academic workers. There is no doubt, however, these are difficult times. We need to come together as a community, remotely, to find ways to survive this moment, and to set in motion the changes we want to see in the post-pandemic institution.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.