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Impact of COVID: Perceptions of wellbeing in law teachers in the UK and Australia

Impact of COVID: Perceptions of wellbeing in law teachers in the UK and Australia.

Reader Caroline Strevens, Dr Colin James and Professor Rachael Field

An interim discussion of our survey – October 2020: There is now a significant amount of empirical evidence that establishes that tertiary students generally, and law students in particular, experience elevated levels of psychological distress (Stallman 2010; Larcombe et al, 2015-17)

Teaching staff at Law Schools are increasingly being called on to design curriculum and pedagogy that will support student wellbeing.  Indeed, Caroline and Rachael have argued that there is an ethical imperative to do this in our recent article co-authored with Professor Nigel Duncan published in Legal Ethics entitled ‘Ethical Imperatives for Legal Educators to Promote Law Student Wellbeing’.

However, university staff themselves are facing workplace pressures as a result of constant change, uncertainty, the impact of neoliberalism – and now Covid-19. The recent literature exploring the ‘neoliberal university’ has recognised the factors impacting all academic staff over the past few years as comprising: increased student numbers, consumer-driven approaches, enhanced scrutiny of research and teaching, a greater focus on commercial activity and the need to generate income and of doing more with less (Wray & Kinman, 2020).

Since 2015 our research team has been exploring the issue of the wellbeing of law teachers in the UK and Australia. Our thesis is that if Law School teaching staff are to have the capacity to work to support student wellbeing then their own wellbeing needs to be supported by their Law School and their University. However, this is only part of the story and we should in any event be concerned with law academic wellbeing as an end-in-itself.

Our 2017 data pools of about 150 participants for each iteration of the survey both in Australia and the UK have been analysed and the discussion disseminated in a number of recent outputs.

1. Clare Wilson and Caroline Strevens, ‘Perceptions of Psychological Well-Being in UK Law Academics’ (2018) 52(3) The Law Teacher 335-349.

2. Colin James, Caroline Strevens, Rachael Field and Clare Wilson, ‘Fit your Own Oxygen Mask First: The Contemporary Neoliberal University and the Well-Being of Legal Academics’ in Judith M Marychurch and Adiva Sifris (eds), Wellness for Law: Making Wellness Core Business (LexisNexis, 2019) Ch 7.

3. Colin James, Rachael Field and Caroline Strevens, ‘Student Wellbeing Through Teacher Wellbeing: A Study with Law Teachers in the UK and Australia’ (2019) 10(3) Student Success 76-83.

4. Colin James, Caroline Strevens, Rachael Field and Clare Wilson, ‘The Changing World of Legal Education and Law Teachers’ Quality of Working Life in Australia and the UK: What Do Law Schools Need to Change?’ in J Chan, M Legg and P Vines, The Impact of Technology and Innovation on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession (Intersentia, 2020).

The survey in the UK was open throughout July 2020 just as the number of covid cases fell to its lowest after the initial wave and as restrictions eased. At this time, competition between Universities for students increased. Student number controls were removed to assist Universities who would struggle financially due to the lack of international students. This context has clearly impacted the data.

The 2020 Covid-19 survey of law teachers in the UK and Australia asked questions about demographics and three open questions:

  • Please explain what you think your University could do to address any concerns you have about personal finances
  • Please explain what you think your University could do to improve staff quality of working life
  • Is there anything arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it that your university should implement or change to improve staff quality of working life in the long-term?
  • In the demographic questions we asked about caring responsibilities.

UK results: There were 117 responses and of those who disclosed gender 70% female (n72) and 30% (n32) male. The substantial majority worked full-time in public Universities.  59 female respondents disclosed a caring responsibility as opposed to 21 male respondents. A substantial number did not answer the finance related question. Unsurprisingly, due to the month that the survey was open there were few concerns expressed about personal safety.

We have been able to conduct a preliminary and interim analysis of the following open question:  Is there anything arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it that your university should implement or change to improve staff quality of working life in the long-term?

  • 28% welcomed the opportunity for flexible working from home. Some commented on how this was positive for carers and also resulted in more engagement in virtual meetings. Loneliness/reduced collegiality were raised as an issue, and more was being asked of Universities to promote staff to staff and staff to student engagement.
  • 13% mentioned overwork resulting from Covid-19 and the move to blended learning.
  • 11% asked for more trust in staff who had demonstrated they work well remotely.
  • Very few mentioned the need for more safety measures, but the survey ran in July when plans for return to campus were in their infancy.

Unlike our 2017 survey there were substantially more positive comments from respondents.  Some of these indicated that a few institutions were taking steps to address academic staff overload whilst others praised clear and regular communication.

In our recent presentation to the Centre for Professional Legal Education online conference, and at the Advancing Wellness in Law webinar, in October we enjoyed a discussion around some of our interim thoughts using SDT factors of autonomy, competence and relatedness to explore what can we learn from these results?

  • Positive learnings: management support has been forthcoming and is recognising the need for flexibility and good communication. Our results indicate that to be even more effective these approaches should address the needs of different groups, for example, carers.
  • Less positive learnings: perceptions of trust in staff working from home need to be strengthened; there needs to be a clearer balance in terms of making demands (to changes to teaching to support students) with job autonomy and control (staff know how to teach). We ask whether students are being supported at the expense of staff?
  • We have also learned that for the less technologically proficient, online teaching may impact their sense of competence and be a source of stress and anxiety.

The Australian Survey currently remains open:

  • It was distributed via the Australasian Law Academics Association, the Wellness Network for Law and the ADR Research Network in September 2020.
  • To date we have 42 responses.
  • The survey is still open and we would be very grateful if Australian Law Teachers who have not yet responded would take time to participate.
  • The link to the survey and participant information is here: (Please don’t hesitate to to contact Rachael Field directly at [email protected] if you experience any issues with the link).

This preliminary and tentative analysis of our small scale survey indicates that now, more than ever, academic staff in Law Schools in the UK and Australia need structural, cultural and management initiatives in their Universities to support their work in curriculum and pedagogy design that in turn supports student wellbeing.

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