A roundtable discussion on “The Gendered Impact of the Cost of Living Crisis on the Profession”



Dr Heather Alberro heather.alberro@ntu.ac.uk  

Dr Cathy Elliott cathy.elliott@ucl.ac.uk

Professor Meryl Kenny m.kenny@ed.ac.uk  

Katie Pruszynski k.m.pruszynski@sheffield.ac.uk 

Dr Roula Nezi s.nezi@surrey.ac.uk  

Dr Manjeet Ramgotra mr18@soas.ac.uk


Last April at the PSA annual conference in Liverpool, a group of us gathered at a roundtable to discuss ‘The Gendered Impact of the Cost of Living Crisis on the Profession.’ This conversation followed from the previous one we had at the annual conference in York (2022) on the ‘Gendered Impacts of Pandemic in Academia.’  Both discussions considered equality issues raised by these circumstances. The pandemic had negative impacts on women's career development, particularly those with caring duties, who often bore the brunt of social reproductive work. Many had to juggle a lot of professional and personal responsibilities, frequently leaving them with little time to do research. Although we are now back to working in person, the repercussions of the pandemic continue to be felt and these have been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis. At our roundtable, Dr Meryl Kenny, Dr Heather Alberro, Katie Pruszynski, Dr Roula Nezi and Dr Cathy Elliot each spoke about different manners in which these crises have impacted equality, diversity, and inclusion in different areas of Higher Education and from varying perspectives. Heather shared how her experience as an early career scholar has been impacted by these crises. Many struggle to make ends meet on part-time and fixed-term contracts or whose starting salaries do not meet daily living costs. These are exacerbated by a lack of care in the university working environment. 

In her intervention, Meryl considered the relationship between love, care, and labour in the academy. She reflected on the logic of ‘carelessness’ that pervades higher education, and the particular challenges this presents for women academics, who, due to the unequal division of caring labour that still predominates in most societies, may be less likely to accumulate the benefits associated with being a ‘good worker’ in ‘greedy’ institutions. The increasing emphasis on metrics in HE further institutionalises this ‘carelessness’ – with care work often devalued or invisible, including the work we do caring for students and colleagues. These dynamics are not new but have been exacerbated by current crises including the global pandemic, increases in paid and unpaid workloads, precarity and casualisation which have fallen harder on some bodies than others. Meryl concluded by asking: how is the HE sector meeting these challenges? Are we seeing an institutional forgetting of, and indeed a specific minimising of experiences of care? She called for bolder action by universities to tackle Covid-exacerbated and intersectional inequalities. 

Yet many of these inequalities persist in Higher Education institutions. Katie Pruszynski noted that at times these institutions are a frustrating paradox; home to some of the most pioneering minds of our time, universities themselves are frequently risk-averse, and slow to change. Too often, institutional change comes only when a critical mass of grumbling, criticism, and (crucially) financial implications, force a response. In terms of EDI, this often manifests as a seeming age spent diagnosing the problems that have long been identified, and precious little time implementing much needed radical reform. Research culture is a term that has been taken on by institutions as well as funders as a necessary benchmark for the assessment of research organisations. But what does a good research culture look like in practice?

To Katie, as someone whose job it is to join academic knowledge with expertise and experience outside of the university, that culture is driven by the attitudes that govern our employment practices, and those which speak to how academics engage with the populations of people for whom they are doing their research. These are, particularly in social sciences research, frequently vulnerable cohorts who are at risk from being exploited even by researchers acting in good faith to deliver meaningful impact from their work. The crucial tension lies in the professional needs of the researcher being structurally at odds with the needs of the research users. When researchers are forced to chase the next grant, care-driven interactions with those users drifts towards something much more transactional.

Research funders also bear responsibility for this culture. By the time an academic downloads an application form from a funder's website, certain inequalities are already baked in; from the lack of incentives to make funding applications diverse and inclusive, to the unwillingness to equally credit the role played by external partners in shaping and driving the research. Unconscious bias pervades our research culture, even as institutions spend tens of thousands of pounds on initiatives to fight it. One way to confront this is to push our institutions, as Katie is doing in hers, to move towards actionable solutions planning, to build equity into the funding landscape, and to develop measures that would see the transfer of power to those who have been marginalised in research spaces. Ultimately, this conversation must move beyond delivering equality of opportunity and look to ways to build towards the equality of outcomes. 

Our conversation then turned to discussion of the two career paths in the academy:  the education focused and teaching and research tracks. As a co-Convenor of the PSA Teaching and Learning Network (TLN) Cathy underlined that it is imperative at this moment to think about EDI in all aspects of our educational activities. Education is the way disciplines reproduce themselves, and it is therefore important that we enable our students to understand, critique and – if they want to – challenge the power structures that produce inequality and difference in Political Studies. 

Cathy outlined three areas where we need to pay attention to EDI. The first was educational careers. She observed that it is often women and minoritised scholars who do the work of teaching and particularly offer support to women and minoritised students. As such, she argued, we need to appropriately reward and recognise the work of education in our discipline regardless of whether the individuals concerned are working on education-and-scholarship or research-and-teaching contracts. There is a growing consensus in the sector that this should be the case: 64% of academics in Ruth Graham’s multinational work say that Education should be very important for promotion cases up to full professor

Second, she underlined the importance of EDI in the curriculum. Over ten years ago, a team from University of Birmingham looked at how widely gender and sexuality are taught in UK Universities in the Politics and IR curriculum, with very disappointing results. More recently University of Nottingham has committed to repeating this study to see what has changed in the intervening years. Cathy’s department at UCL worked with students to do a deep dive into our departmental curriculum and found that the situation was not promising, even though the process of raising awareness has driven positive changes and a much more diverse and inclusive curriculum than we had before. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good practice throughout the discipline and important interventions including new resources for colleagues to update and develop their own modules. If we do not do this work from the beginning of undergraduate level study, our discipline will not change.

Third, Cathy discussed pedagogies. We need to think about education in the context of the increasing importance of widening participation, the mental health crisis we are seeing among our students, issues of attendance and engagement, and students needing to work to maintain themselves whilst also taking on student debt. None of these issues are easy to address or solve, but educators have a key role to play in developing kind, supportive and engaging pedagogies that enable all students to do well and support and encourage them to make best use of the opportunity that Higher Education offers for their circumstances. This includes tackling awarding gaps and encouraging engagement. Cathy emphasised that supportive pedagogies will always centre belonging. If students feel that people like them belong in places like universities, because they see people like them on their reading lists, in senior and leadership roles, because their teachers know their names and because they are supported to work together and make friends, then they are more likely to succeed, and, even more importantly, to be happy. 

Cathy stressed that making progress in all three areas will be hard work, and we know that the work will not be evenly distributed. We need to organise ourselves to ensure that we have time and support to do it, and that it is appropriately rewarded and recognised. Nevertheless, the relationships with students and among ourselves that arise through our work on education are fulfilling, motivating, protective of our mental health, intellectually stimulating and enriching for our careers. As with much work that women and minoritised people do, it can be undervalued. But Cathy urged us to be mindful of making the same mistake of underrating it ourselves.

This was a rich and diverse roundtable that discussed some of the EDI issues; that academics, students, and professional staff confront a world hampered by existential crises. The discussion ranged from inequality and carelessness in an increasingly demanding workplace and research culture, to caring for students and each other in our roles as educators who have the possibility to change society to be more inclusive, caring, and equal in our diversities through education.