COVID-19 consequences exposing existing inequalities in academia

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Over the past year, I have participated in numerous videoconferences. Hours of staring at my face on the screen have made me aware of lines I didn’t notice before. They certainly did not magically appear the moment the COVID-19 pandemic started but I saw them only now, when the sight couldn’t be avoided. In a similar manner, the COVID-19 pandemic has held up a mirror to our academic community. All the cracks that we suddenly see have also been there before. It is just that now it has become increasingly difficult to ignore them, as vulnerable researchers are falling down these cracks in alarming numbers.

Support for Researchers

On September 3rd 2020, I participated in a virtual session on Impact of Covid-19 on the career development of researchers, a part of the Euroscience Open Forum 2020. In this session, the speakers highlighted challenges faced by vulnerable researchers, from doctoral and early career researchers to researchers with disabilities or caregiving responsibilities. However, while all our presentations spoke specifically of the COVID-19 challenges, the cracks we jointly identified were systemic problems of the academic community.

Most notable is the problem of inadequate support for researchers. Doctoral students, in particular, are often dependent on their supervisors’ and broader institutional support to manage difficulties. In case of unprecedented disruption of the COVID-19 restrictions, such support was even more critical, and some national academic communities stepped up to deliver it. This was the example highlighted by Thomas Coudreau, the President of Réseau National des Collèges doctoraux. He presented how French doctoral students were provided with costed extensions if experiencing delays in their research due to inadequate working conditions, health issues and other problems of access to research materials, resources or fieldwork sites during the pandemic.

While great effort has been invested in this case to ensure that the demands for costed extensions were fair, homogenous across different fields and not exaggerated, some elements still stand out as not fully addressing multidimensional challenges faced by the most vulnerable researchers. For one, all the doctoral students not already funded by government contracts were not eligible to apply. Further, those who were eligible also had to receive positive opinions of supervisor, research unit director and doctoral school director at very short notice. Such an approach, I would claim, is likely to leave out those who might need such costed extensions the most – such as doctoral students who are not well integrated into their universities or who are not well supported by their supervisors.

Another element I noted in this scheme for French doctoral students is an assumption of a very limited period of “compensation” for problems that are long-term in nature. For example, COVID-19 related caregiving responsibilities or mental health issues seem to be “worth” only 1-4 months of extension. Even leaving aside that both caregiving or mental health can hardly be so neatly reduced to a few months of “extra difficulties”, such an approach exposes another systemic problem of the academic community, where issues that are disproportionally affecting certain groups are offered individual solutions.

Mental Health and Gender Issues

In case of mental health, this is vividly illustrated by the evidence from a study on research work, mental wellbeing and social connections among the UK doctoral students and early career researchers, presented by Katie Wheat of the Vitae, the UK-based organization promoting personal, professional and career development of researchers. The results of this study highlight how the COVID-19 is more likely to lead to mental distress among very specific groups of researchers: doctoral students (compared to research staff), females, researchers working in arts or humanities, researchers with disabilities, those who are not UK citizens, those who don’t feel well supported by supervisor/manager or university, and those who lack clear guidelines from the university about how the university will support changes to working arrangements. In other words, existing inequalities and disadvantages compound with the COVID-19 consequences to affect more adversely those researchers who were in more vulnerable or more precarious positions even before the pandemic hit.

A similar pattern was evident from my presentation on gender disparities in academia. While the emerging data showing a considerable drop in scholarly production of female academics (particularly early career researchers) is alarming, this is a continuation of long-standing trends. Female academics still disproportionately shoulder the burden of childcare/caregiving responsibilities, and COVID-19 only exacerbated this pattern. In other words, a bit like with the lines on my face, gender disparities in academia were not developed but only made more visible by the COVID-19 consequences.

Finally, all these pre-existing inequalities – from gender disparities to disabilities and precarious socio-economic situations – are likely to have a long-term effect for vulnerable researchers even after the pandemic, in terms of career development, dropping out of academia, and mental health and wellbeing, as emphasized by Sara Pilia of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers. However, the fact that we are aware of that, and that we increasingly realize that the system of support that we have in place for researchers did not function adequately even before the pandemic gives us a chance to now restructure it more comprehensively.  

But, to do that, we must rethink the way we approach researchers, and not treat them solely as output-producing machines, but as whole human beings. Whole human beings regularly encounter real-life problems and experience drops in productivity. However, what they give in return are multidimensional understandings and insights that are the true requirements for the growth of any academic community. So, the question to ask now at the end is, what needs to change first to get us on that track?

Written by Tanja Vuckovic Juros, scientific collaborator at the University of Louvain and editor-in-chief of the Croatian Sociological Review

This article is part of a Special Issue about ESOF 2020 – held in Trieste, Italy from 2 to 6 September 2020.

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