Pandemic Perspectives: Improving support for teaching and research in UK Higher Education in Times of Crisis

  • COVID-19

Dr Rasha Kassem, Senior Lecturer in Accounting, Aston University & Dr Fotios Mitsakis, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management / Organisational Behaviour, Nottingham Trent University 

In this piece, Dr Rasha Kassem and Dr Fotios Mitsakis delve into the experiences of nearly 300 academics within the UK’s higher education sector to explore how the pandemic affected their teaching and research efforts and to suggest ways we might enhance resilience in the face of future crises.

The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted the Higher Education (HE) sector, leading to a sudden shift for academics worldwide to remote work. Using a qualitative online questionnaire, our study explores the various barriers encountered by academic staff in their teaching and research endeavours during the pandemic. It provides recommendations for improving support for teaching and research in times of crisis.

The study uncovered predominantly negative consequences for teaching due to a sudden transition to online education, as confirmed by most participants (90%). The research highlights the significant rise in teaching responsibilities faced by educators, who were compelled to modify their instructional materials to suit the new mode of delivery. More students received extensions for submitting assessments compared to previous periods. A considerable proportion of students required additional support or reported exceptional circumstances, leading to a noticeable surge in workload for educators, which hindered their research endeavours (as reported by 96% of participants).

Numerous participants underscored the detrimental effects of the pandemic on academic research, citing impediments such as an overwhelming teaching burden, restricted access to laboratories and equipment, insufficient research assistance, and networking challenges. Many expressed that the transition to online platforms hindered their ability to publish research, with some remarking, “It is not the same over Zoom” (80%). Furthermore, academics faced a dual challenge of heightened teaching and administrative duties, resulting in a considerable slowdown of research progress, particularly among those engaged in field-based or laboratory-based investigations. The lack of access to labs, equipment, and research time, coupled with increased teaching responsibilities, contributed to this stagnation, as 75% of participants reported.

A significant portion of our participants (75%) emphasised the absence of research support from their line managers and departmental research coordinators, leading to a complete halt in their research progress. One expressed the following sentiment:

“I did embark on a research study as COVID hit, but I have felt very unsupported by my line manager and departmental research coordinator. The view is that undertaking research is a negative thing because it pulls away from teaching – that we should prioritise. My teaching load has more than doubled. As such, I have decided to go part-time to undertake freelance research in my own time and reduce my teaching workload.”

Many (68%) highlighted their challenges in effectively engaging and connecting with students during the transition to remote teaching. This resulted in a notable sense of detachment. The limitations of interactivity, personalisation, and the ability to sustain student motivation and engagement were crucial factors that hindered the participants’ ability to gauge students’ reactions and understanding. Additionally, academics encountered difficulties evaluating online assignments and tracking students’ progress and development.

A subset of respondents (12%) faced significant challenges adapting to online teaching. These difficulties were primarily attributed to time constraints, a lack of digital skills among academics, and technology-related issues such as outdated equipment and malfunctioning machinery. Participants also reported issues with grading online assessments and effectively monitoring students’ progress and development. Furthermore, they encountered various technological hurdles throughout the process.

These results align with those reported by other studies in the UK, mainly relating to technological issues, low student engagement, and tremendous teaching preparation to meet the demands of the new era. Similar findings were also reported across the globe (e.g. Portugal, South Africa, Brazil, Australia, and the US), with academics in those countries reporting limited research activities mainly due to increased teaching loads, as well as issues accessing laboratories to conduct their experiments.

Based on these findings, several policy and practice implications arise. To begin, HE leaders should facilitate meaningful discussions between academics and learning designers to identify and implement interactive online tools that effectively enhance student engagement. The study emphasises the urgent need for intervention from UK HE policymakers and leaders to develop measures that would have alleviated academic pressures during the pandemic, and which can ensure resilience and preparedness for future crises. An essential aspect of this is re-evaluating and adjusting teaching loads based on the capabilities and circumstances of individual academics.

HE institutions must establish robust support systems to assist academics in navigating the challenges of online teaching and research. This can involve providing technical support, pedagogical training, and resources tailored to address the specific needs of academics during remote work. Policymakers and institutional leaders should consider implementing flexible workload allocation models that account for the additional demands placed on academics during crises. This may involve revisiting workload distribution, providing additional support staff, and implementing strategies to ensure a healthy work-life balance.

Efforts should be made to enhance academic collaboration and networking opportunities within and across institutions. Virtual platforms and initiatives can be leveraged to foster a sense of community, facilitate knowledge sharing, and encourage interdisciplinary research collaborations. Additionally, policymakers should invest in long-term digital transformation initiatives, providing ongoing training, resources, and incentives to equip academics with digital literacy skills and encourage the integration of technology-enhanced pedagogies and research practices.

Policymakers and institutions should develop contingency plans and support mechanisms for field-based research during crises. This can involve exploring alternative research methodologies, promoting virtual collaborations, and providing necessary resources and funding for remote data collection and analysis. Comprehensive crisis preparedness and resilience plans should also be established, including protocols and resources for swift transitions to remote teaching and research, ensuring access to essential technologies and infrastructure, and regularly reviewing and updating contingency plans based on past experiences.

Adequate funding and resources should be allocated to support the implementation of these policy and practice implications. This includes investing in infrastructure, technology, training programmes, and research grants to enable effective teaching, research, and adaptation to crises. In recognising the diverse learning needs of students and the varied teaching styles employed by academics, policymakers should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. They should also consider providing academics access to teaching and research resources, equipment, and laboratories during unprecedented times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

Finally, policymakers and institutions should establish mechanisms for ongoing evaluation and feedback to assess the effectiveness of implemented policies and practices. Regular assessments and feedback processes can inform necessary adjustments, identify areas for improvement, and ensure the continuous enhancement of teaching, research, and support systems.

About the authors

Dr Rasha Kasssem is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at Aston University. She has over 16 years of experience in Higher Education, specialising in research on fraud, corruption, cybercrime, governance, and audit across various sectors including private, public, and voluntary. Additionally, Rasha researches technology, sustainability, CSR, and pedagogy.

Fotios Mitsakis is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management / Organisational Behaviour at Nottingham Trent University. Prior to this Fotios completed his PhD in Human Resource Management at the University of Strathclyde. Fotios completes research in areas including Human Resource Development, Strategic HRD, and Training and Development, and he has published several articles exploring Strategic HRD in times of business and economic uncertainty.

Image Credit: Chris Montgomery, Unsplash