Coronavirus (COVID-19) higher education, further education and community learning and development: wider harms

This paper considers the indirect, wider harms of the pandemic on students, learners and staff within the Further Education, Higher Education and Community Learning and Development sectors from the perspective of stakeholders and drawing on the findings or relevant reports relating to these sectors.

6. Impact on Staff and CLD Volunteers

Throughout the course of the pandemic, university and college staff and CLD staff and volunteers have encountered challenging and unfamiliar situations. This section describes those challenges and the associated impacts.

Union representatives reported that the workload of staff and the way in which people work has become considerably more demanding during the pandemic. There are additional concerns in relation to women, race, carers and disabled staff as some of them have left employment during the pandemic due to these extra work pressures. In the HE sector, there are concerns that due to increased workloads in teaching provision, research time is reduced. 50% of 1,000 Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) members (mainly from the FE sector) who were surveyed in November 2021 (19), worked overtime due to their institution’s approach to online learning. Unions identified understaffing as a fundamental issue.

Union and college representatives reported that pre-pandemic, there were already morale issues in HE due to high workloads, pension cuts, job insecurity and other factors, leading to poor mental health and wellbeing outcomes among staff. Along with a perceived lack of recognition felt by some, these issues have been exacerbated during the pandemic with the additional Covid-19 safety fears of many staff and particularly frontline workers (cleaners, estate staff, accommodation staff). With the return to campuses of increasing numbers of staff, students and learners’ unions have particular safety concerns for clinically vulnerable staff, especially those who cannot work from home. Many lower paid workers perceive that little or no consideration is given to their health, or changes to their working practices. 36% of the EIS survey respondents (19) said their institution had checked on their personal wellbeing during the pandemic. UCU also conducted a survey of their members in Scotland in August 2021 (20) and 68% felt their employer was either somewhat supportive or very supportive of staff and the challenges faced over the past academic year.

Workforce resilience is an emerging issue. Union surveys (19) state that 70% of EIS respondents felt that the changed working practices introduced during the pandemic raised their stress levels and 75% of UCU Scotland surveyed members experienced an increase in stress or anxiety. Staff are becoming less confident about their existing skills due to a combination of changes to educational delivery particularly around digital skills and a lack of opportunity for staff to put new skills into practice. College, CLD and union representatives reported that the move to online teaching has been a learning curve for many staff, where they require equipment as well as on-going training in a very uncertain and changing work environment. Union representatives reported that the provision of suitable equipment for staff varies significantly across institutions. 73% of 1,000 EIS members surveyed, (19), supported hybrid working in a post-Covid environment and that it has benefited some staff including those with disabilities. Hybrid working, for some, has led to a decrease in the distinction between home-life and work-life and some people are working flexible but longer hours. There are concerns that freedoms gained through flexible working may be lost once staff return to the workplace and also concerns about increasing face-to-face activity in universities and colleges. 41% of 994 UCU Scotland members surveyed were anxious about returning to in-person on-campus working. Some members found online working supportive and productive due to stricter time limits on meetings, fewer interruptions at home etc. Some staff find preparing for online teaching to be more resource intensive.

Union representatives stated that staff-student relations have been challenging during the pandemic. There have been reports of incidents in libraries in particular, where support staff have been placed in stressful situations such as having to ask students to comply with face coverings and not congregate in groups. Staff-staff relations are also a concern, particularly when considering career progression for members working from home who are more isolated. Support staff members and local management should be working closely together building strong relationships in order to ensure that adherence to protective measures remains high and to maintain a COVID-safe environment.

CLD representatives reported that many staff have been financially adversely affected by the pandemic. Union representatives indicated that employers should be offering job security to staff during the pandemic and zero hours’ contracts are a concern for many staff and the impact of inflation on stagnant salary levels is an issue. They also stated that staff should have had access to a fund similar to the student support fund that was provided during the pandemic. Staff are also worried whether the environment they are working in is COVID-safe as the interpreting of Scottish Government Covid-19 guidance within CLD settings can be challenging.

Union representatives reported that some support staff, such as cleaners and security staff, are often offering support to students in precarious situations where specialist support may be more appropriate e.g. supporting students with very poor mental health. The support available to staff in the HE/FE sector varies and is often more extensive in larger or better resourced institutions. Management should ensure they regularly check-in with staff, especially those who are working from home as there is a risk that staff feel more isolated and receive less support, particularly women, who are more likely to be impacted. The same variability of provision also applies to staff seeking access to occupational health support and needs to be addressed. There are concerns about the wellbeing of people who continue to work from home while being unfit for work due to illness.



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