When will it be safe? How safe? Safe for whom? What is the balance of risk in managing safety, in considering the physical, the mental, the social, or economic wellbeing of our staff – and who decides?
These questions dominate our daily lives in the time of COVID-19, as levels of worry and anxiety remain at high levels.
Public discourse around the physical ‘re-opening’ of higher education campuses has predominantly focused on new and continuing students, and how to reassure them that institutions will be safe (or ‘safe enough’) during the continuing threat from the pandemic. Behind the scenes, institutions are also discussing how to manage potential risks to their staff, and employers are working with trade unions to set baseline principles.
We feel it is important for the sector to look at these risks through an ‘equalities’ lens, and consider ‘safety’ in its widest sense: not only in terms of physical health, but also mental health, issues of harassment, belonging, and precarity.
Problematizing “Open as usual”?
Recent headlines about the ‘re-opening’ of institutions have elicited some strong reactions: for of course, the vast majority of institutions have remained open throughout the pandemic. Staff in our sector have undertaken immense personal and professional labour in their response to the crisis and the resulting ‘pivot’ to an online, distanced, and disrupted society.
What may have been closed is instead the physical space and services of higher education, but even then, few institutions will have shut down completely. Some staff have remained ‘on site’ either for essential campus functions or to directly contribute to tackling the pandemic: these are our cleaning staff, estates and security, accommodation teams, IT support, Technicians, those involved in clinical care and research, and many more. There may already be learning around the feelings of ‘safety’ from the experiences of these staff which can be useful.
At the same time, it’s acknowledged that some staff – and some institutions – have always relied on significant home or distance working, and ‘re-opening’ may mean something very different in those contexts. Such working is now enabled more widely in infrastructure and policy, and in future, where this enables choice, it will be a welcome change for many (though when mandatory, has its own equality challenges – and home is not ‘safe’ for everyone). With this shift, many institutions face difficult decisions as to how reasonable it is to expect staff to be on-site in the same way as before the pandemic, especially as societal questions around travel mobility, childcare and caring infrastructure, and localised lockdowns, remain in flux.
Feeling ‘safe’? The equalities challenge
What do we mean by ‘safety’? There are of course the immediate health threats of the pandemic, and how these risks disproportionately impact certain groups: for example, in the UK, clinical vulnerability of certain ages, underlying health conditions, pregnant people, were flagged early as groups at higher risk, and we now know there are serious disproportionate impacts on individuals relating to key characteristics (for example, ethnicity and/or gender). These discussions have highlighted how risk and safety are interconnected with wider societal inequalities: in health, housing, and representation in certain occupations.
There are also interrelated concerns for many staff about feelings of safety relating to, or exacerbated by, the pandemic. Harassment and hate crime continues, with racialised and xenophobic responses experienced by some staff and students.
There may be questions about how staff with specific needs relating to disability or health conditions (including mental health) will be enabled ‘post-lockdown’, as noted by NADSN in their recent position paper. Staff networks, which provide support and solidarity in difficult times may struggle to find the space and time to reconnect; faith spaces may have to make difficult practical decisions about use.
There will also be economic and wellbeing fears around career impacts: unequal distribution of labour, precarity and redundancy, and the ability to undertake travel, field trips, work in different spaces – all which may be more likely to have disproportionate impact on different groups. In even a short space of time, inequalities have already been seen on the impact of women’s research.
As with student equality, all these current concerns have the risk of compounding existing inequalities in higher education. Unequal career trajectories and funding ; working environments which advantage some and disadvantage others; harassment and discrimination; these have not gone away. We can seek to mitigate how much these existing inequalities are exacerbated. To ‘re-open’ with a view to a more inclusive institution involves asking deeper questions not only of the risk of COVID directly, but about who the university is made safe for in a time of global crisis.
Recognising and responding
A key element of belonging is feeling ‘safe’ and ‘at home’ (Yuval Davis 2006). It is feeling that your experiences matter, and your identity is recognised and valued. How can institutions ensure that they are recognising and responding to the diverse safety concerns of their staff arising from the pandemic?
The practical, leadership, and communication challenges of considering the potential safety risks and concerns of different staff groups (within varied roles, locations, and ways of working) is undoubtedly complex, and time is short. While Advance HE has been developing a number of tools to support institutions in considering equalities during the pandemic and planning for the future we also stress the importance of listening to affected staff and working in consultation.
Advance HE held a webinar on 8 July to discuss just some of the issues above and more. The panel discussion and Q&A prompted reflection on the range of staff – academic, professional, support – and their diverse needs in regards to ‘safety’: not only in terms of physical health, but issues of harassment, belonging, and precarity.
Yuval-Davis, N (2006) ‘Belonging and the politics of belonging’, Patterns of Prejudice 40:3, 197-214.