Coronavirus and academic careers: recognising and addressing the disproportionate impact

(08-03-2021) The coronavirus pandemic has the whole of society in its grip, but on individuals it often has a very unequal impact. The same has been observed in the academic world.

At present, researchers with care tasks or a heavy educational load often feel greater constraints on their career development than other researchers. Ghent University is pressing for this inequality to be recognised, and for us to address it together.

The coronavirus crisis has been with us for a year now. Although we have every reason to hope for the best, thanks to effective vaccines (and despite the rather hesitant start to the vaccination campaign), no one can really tell when life will approach normality again. This crisis is beginning to weigh heavily on many of us. The mental wellbeing of our students, who are still at a crucial stage in life, and that of our colleagues, is an area of concern. But we should also turn our attention to the other ways in which the COVID-19-crisis has made itself felt.

Throughout the last year, and to date, a great many colleagues have made, and still make, an extraordinary effort to guarantee the safety of education and research. This demonstrates the resilience and solidarity present among the members of the Ghent University community. But we cannot deny that the pandemic is also causing growing inequalities, not just in society at large but in academia, in terms of wellbeing and in terms of career opportunities. 

The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on academic staff is evidenced by the excellent work carried out by a number of members of the Jonge Academie [Young Academy] in recent months. The Jonge Academie has gathered in key figures and data from the Flemish universities and published them on www.wetenschapismvx.be. One of the findings of their analysis is that (young) researchers (m/f/x) with care tasks or a heavy educational load are often more severely affected than other researchers. To counter the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, the Jonge Academie has also developed a toolbox containing specific self-help tips for academics.

“It is good that the Jonge Academie has brought the unequal impact of coronavirus on academic careers to our attention at an early stage. By pursuing sustainable employment with a focus on a healthy work-life balance we will certainly reduce the impact in the long term, but in the current stage we should be extra vigilant and provide specific support wherever necessary.” (Vice-Rector Mieke Van Herreweghe)

Ghent University considers it vital to ensure that this disproportionate impact does not have detrimental long-term effects. For that reason we would like to draw attention through this message to a number of specific recommendations and measures of relevance to Ghent University.

Understand the coronavirus impact by reading about it 

Find out about the unequal impact of coronavirus on academic staff (m/f/x) with care tasks or a heavy educational workload by reading this handy fact sheet, which was prepared by the Jonge Academie. Make others aware of the unequal impact and the risks it poses.

Communicate how the coronavirus crisis has impacted on your work

To begin with, it is important for all academic staff to highlight and document the pandemic's impact on their activities. Tips on how the impact can be documented are provided in the Jonge Academie toolbox and (for Ghent University research in particular) on this webpage

Furthermore, in assessments and selections of all kinds you can mention, space permitting, any significant personal circumstances such as the impact of COVID-19. This might include an increase in care tasks, the extra work needed to digitise reading material, solidarity in assuming educational tasks, the impossibility of collecting data, forced alteration of research planning, etc.

If research activities are deferred for more than a month or brought to an end as a result of the crisis, you can report this at researchdelay@ugent.be.

Consider the coronavirus impact in assessments

Ghent University continues to appeal for leniency and flexibility in the assessment of colleagues’ work. For example, the COVID-19-fact sheet can be raised for consideration by assessment and evaluation committees. Specific tips for commission members can be found on this page.

The recently updated career and promotions policy for professional staff allows for professional staff to request a feedback interview with their HR committee. On that basis the ambitions set out in the integration text can be altered, if, for example, COVID-19 is adjudged to have had an impact. It is also perfectly possible, without any explicit alteration of the integration text, to consider the impact of coronavirus in an assessment. It is important, therefore, that academic staff members be given the opportunity to highlight any unequal impact, so as to raise it for consideration in assessments.

Check to see if the funding for significantly delayed doctoral projects can be extended by way of exception

In many cases the impact of coronavirus on current doctoral research can be accommodated by altering the research or taking a flexible approach to the initial minimum criteria or objectives. However, some doctoral researchers may, at a crucial stage of their project, face a delay which cannot be rectified. These delays might arise, for example, because planned excavations could not go ahead due to an ongoing travel ban, or because essential research infrastructure was used exclusively for COVID-19-related activities over an extended period, etc.

Ghent University honours the principle that the current crisis should not lead to a situation in which doctoral students are unable to obtain their doctorates. In the case of serious and irremediable disruptions or delays, the possibility of a time-limited, exceptional extension of funding for current doctorates should be investigated. It is preferred that research promoters or partnerships (e.g. academic department, research group, etc.) provide their own resources. In the case of assistants, faculties can check whether it would be fair to allocate a seventh annual term. If no alternative funding options are available whatsoever, the promoter may, following a recent rule change, send an application to the Research Coordination Office (BOF).

Initiatives to promote mental wellbeing

Special times pose special challenges. Ghent University is a university at which care and safety matter. Care of ourselves and of others is an important point to keep in mind. An overview of the support specific to wellbeing can be found at the staff coronavirus page.

The Doctoral Schools also list on their web page several initiatives on wellbeing and support for (international) doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers

“As an institution we have had a difficult year, but thanks to the efforts of a great many people we have managed to keep the ship that is Ghent University on course for the duration of this crisis. For that I cannot thank our staff and students enough. But I would still call on everybody to spare a thought for those who have been more severely affected by the crisis than others. We mustn't let anyone fall through the cracks.” (Rector Rik Van de Walle)

Sustainable employment focused on a healthy work-life balance

Ghent University is working on sustainable employment, with the focus on an optimal work-life balance. Thus in recent years a renewed Professorial staff career and promotions policy has been put in place, which includes a full appreciation of the commitment to education and social service provisioning. The Research Staff has also been given a transparent career policy. And very recently a stronger legal framework has been worked out for doctoral fellows based on trust, support and appreciation.

We would like to walk further along the path to sustainable, quality careers. The way we assess our research will play a crucial role in this. With the recent signing of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) Ghent University has confirmed its commitment to a more holistic and differentiated assessment of research. Specific actions relate to the implementation of the DORA principles in existing and new assessments and the monitoring of its effects. All (fellow) Ghent University researchers will be informed about DORA and made aware of the need to apply the principles themselves.

Another point for concern is the coordination of work in an academic setting with many care and private engagements. Ghent University has recently approved new leave regulations applicable to all personnel categories. The new regulations reflect the societal trend for more opportunities to find a better work-life balance. Examples of the changes include the 1/10 parental leave option, the introduction of care provision leave, flexibility in the uptake of parental leave, etc.