The Dangerous Academy

Not even Jo’Anna could give South African academics much hope at the moment. Four South African professors and colleagues have died within a month of each other already this year. One was gunned down in what appears to be a professional hit outside his home, and three passed away with the whisper of prematurity.

The Americans haven’t fared any better. At least 10 colleagues there have died in more or less the same time period. And none of these have been “old age” passings. Colleagues across the world are found dead in their offices, found dead at home, drowned in ponds and swimming pools, struck down by “short illnesses” or mysteriously shot or stabbed. One Prof was killed crossing a freeway at 3am.

These are just the folk I am aware of – there could be plenty more. The sad part is that this isn’t really “newsworthy” (except where it involves “interesting” violence), and no one apart from family and friends really care much, even though recent British research proved that more than half of British academics show signs of psychological distress. Idle talk at any academic conference, national or international, kindles stories about drink, depression and insomnia. So what is going on?

Academic communities in South Africa are relatively small, and one tends to know a fair amount about what happens at different universities in the country. It seems to me there isn’t a single institution in the country who doesn’t have academic staff showing signs of psychological distress, and with the caveats of my own experience and those of colleagues with whom I’ve worked or otherwise interacted with around the world,  I’ve given a bit of thought to our national context.

Shared with our global colleagues, growing stress levels are prompted by heavy workloads, a “long hours” culture and conflicting management demands. The commodification of education and the tendency to run a university as a business have seen most universities cut staff radically, with those left expecting to take on that work – and much more. While staff numbers drop, student numbers increase exponentially. When a crisis hits, a “contract” staff member or a postgraduate student is pulled in to help, aggravating the pressures of job insecurity and staff exploitation.

Lecturers are caught up in bureaucracy and increasing demands for “product” (graduated students, also known as throughput) and “productivity” (the amount of published research books and articles they can generate). Many work 14 hour days, seven days a week. And for many folk, this results in increasing levels of anxiety, stress, depression and what some therapists call perfectionism – meaning when someone is aiming for and constantly expecting really high standards, even when there is a positive outcome, they feel they have fallen short. After all, you’re only as good as your research rating or as good as your ability to bring in funding for research.

In a nutshell, instead of one’s internal aspirations helping them do well, it actually hinders them.

Dr Alan Swann of Imperial College London, chair of the higher education occupational physicians committee, also blames “demands for increased product and productivity” for rising levels of mental health problems among academics. He emphasises that most academics are stressed rather than mentally unwell: “They are thinking about their work and the consequences of not being as good as they should be; they’re having difficulty switching off and feeling guilty if they’re not working seven days a week.”

And a study published in 2013 by the University and College Union (UCU) echoes these arguments. This study used health and safety executive measures, assessed against a large sample of over 20,000 university employees, to reveal that academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population.

Prof Gail Kinman who led the research highlights poor work-life balance as a key factor, with academics putting in increasing hours as they attempt to respond to high levels of internal and external scrutiny, a fast pace of change and the notion of students as customers – leading to demands such as 24-hour limit for responses to student queries.

So globally, here in South Africa we fit right in, but with the added pressures of pretty regular and often violent student protest action, and also organisational political manoeuvring, not to mention battling with ill-equipped undergraduates and various other contextual teaching pressures. It’s not fun having to try and rescue equipment, for example, with bullets raining down on the roof and petrol bombs flying through the windows.

Every single academic colleague in SA with whom I am friends, battles anxiety, isolation and/or a really poor life-work balance, and are not receiving the institutional support they need.

Add to this that the sixth most natural underlying cause of death in South Africa is “hypertensive diseases” accounting for 4.4% of deaths in the period from 2014 to 2016 (with Tuberculosis topping the list at 6.5% and Diabetes close behind at 5.5%), and you start to wonder how much damage stress is doing to our academic population: high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks are not uncommon.

I guess even Jo’Anna wouldn’t want to fund research into whether or not being a university lecturer is proving to be an increasingly dangerous occupation. She really wouldn’t want to hear the answer.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in June 2018.


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