Integrating Wellbeing in University Rankings

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Each year the Times Higher Education Magazine (THE) publishes the results of its World University Rankings. According to the results of the 2019 Rankings, the top 3 performing institutions are the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and Stanford University.

The Times Higher Education World University Ranking, which began in 2004, is widely recognized as the most comprehensive and efficient system for assessing university performance across 1250 higher education institutions. Among the THE’s claim to fame is its’ comprehensive methodology.

THE uses 13 performance indicators to compare institutions, each of which are grouped into five core areas: teaching, research, international outlook, knowledge transfer, and research influence. Apart from providing a sophisticated assessment of performance across a broad range of metrics, the results are audited by Price Waterhouse Coopers, which make the THE Rankings the only global university rankings subjected to full, independent scrutiny.

Despite the continuing commitment to improving and updating the robust methodology of the ranking scheme, there remains one criterion that has been consistently overlooked in the 15 years that the survey has been running and that is a commitment to wellbeing. To date, there is no metric for considering or assessing the extent to which a higher education institution prioritizes the wellbeing of its’ students.

With stress rates soaring across universities, and an increasing number of students and staff reporting mental health challenges, it is more crucial than ever that higher education institutions start to invest in this area. By neglecting to include any metric for wellbeing in the ranking scheme, these surveys perpetuate the perception of wellbeing as something supplemental to the university experience rather than an integral part of it. Having wellbeing included as part of the university ranking matrix would not only help to counter this perception, it would also provide a strong incentivize for universities to further invest in student and staff wellbeing.

We’ve seen evidence of how specific metrics in the ranking schemes have facilitated shifts within the higher education sector – this is particularly the case in the realm of research impact, where the emphasis on transferable knowledge has led to greater collaboration between industry and academia. In this sense, the rankings community has a real opportunity to catalyse a much-needed shift in how wellbeing is approached in academia.

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Why Work-Life Boundaries Don’t Work

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While there are no shortage of books, blog posts and courses offering advice on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this advice is not particularly well-suited to PhD students. There are a few reasons for this.

When it comes to completing a PhD, there is no denying that the boundaries between work and home life are particularly prone to becoming blurred. Apart from the fact that these projects can feel incredibly personal to us, the time commitment and dedication it requires to complete a PhD is quite unlike most other pursuits.

For those who can approach the PhD like a conventional job and turn their minds off when the clock strikes 5pm, they are lucky. But from my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, the PhD doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a rigorous process, but also a creative one, and as it is with any creative endeavour, we can’t always schedule our creativity into ‘normal’ working hours. Consequently, techniques for achieving an optimal work-life balance are not always suitable to the unique circumstances of PhD life.

A second reason why some work-life balance techniques may not be particularly appropriate for doctoral students relates to the difference between physically bringing work home and mentally holding on to it. During my time as a doctoral student, what I noticed is that as much as I physically left my work behind on weekends or holidays, I couldn’t quite escape the mental weight of it. As much as I would decide to take time off, my mind was still very much focused on it, and not in a positive way. I would either worry about the particulars of the project or feel general stress about whether I would ever finish it.

Allowing work to creep into our downtime, in either a physical or mental capacity, is often a symptom of deeper anxieties and insecurities. Moving beyond this requires us to investigate the thoughts and internal chatter that arise in relation to our work. Since most work-life balance strategies deal primarily with the symptoms of the imbalance –  instead of the deeper roots of it – they can only go so far.

Moreover, the notion of drawing boundaries between work and life is limited by its starkness. Choosing between work and free-time can often lead to feelings of guilt, or the nagging sense that we ‘should’ be working. In this regard, constantly placing our downtime in opposition to our work, tends to facilitate an either/or choice in regards to how we spend our time. So instead of ‘drawing boundaries’ it may be more appropriate to adopt the terminology of cultivating space – space for something other than work in our lives. Not only does this subtle shift in terminology create room for other projects, interests, passions which are distinct from our PhD projects to emerge, it ensures that we do not take our work too seriously, too personally or allow the process to become all-consuming. This is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving a healthy work-life balance.

 

Stress in Academia: Debunking Three Common Myths

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Universities have become a breeding ground for stress, so much that I can hardly remember a day going by without hearing the words, ‘I’m so stressed’ being uttered by my students. With multiple deadlines, performance pressure, escalating tuition fees, and an uncertain job market, it is no wonder that students are reportedly experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. However, students aren’t alone in their experiences, as administrative and academic staff have also exhibited a sharp increase in stress-related illnesses, leading to higher numbers of absences throughout the academic year.

Accompanying the increasing number of stressed out staff and students is an almost tacit acceptance of stress within university culture. Not many people question or challenge the prevalence of stress in higher education –  instead there has been a normalization of stress within academia. This normalization of stress has been propagated and reinforced by several myths. In this post, I will highlight three of the most common myths relating to stress in academia.

 

Myth#1: Stress is Natural

The first myth about stress is that it is a natural part of academic life. I came face-to-face with this attitude when I was attending a Q&A session for incoming doctoral students. When asked about how to manage the anxiety associated with completing a doctorate, one of the panelists remarked: ‘You are a PhD student, you are supposed to be stressed out.’

The trouble with this outlook is that it brushes aside the impact stress has on our physical and mental health.

Stress is not simply a feeling we experience as a consequence of a situation or event, it actually facilitates a physiological response in our bodies known as the fight or flight mechanism. Most of the things that trigger our fight or flight responses – exams, dissertations, deadlines – are things we face on a daily basis. As a consequence, we tend to live in states of prolonged and chronic stress, all of which can have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.

So despite the tendency to see stress as a natural part of academic life, when we consider its impact, there is actually nothing natural about it.

 

Myth#2: Being Stressed is a Virtue

Not only is stress seen as a natural part of studying and working in academia, it is also commonly equated with productivity and performance. On this basis, it is easy to assume that there is something virtuous in being stressed out – so many wear their stress as a badge of honour.

I recall on countless occasions asking colleagues how their holidays were and have noticed how their responses are often framed in relation to how much they ‘accomplished’ during their time off. In a profession where individuals have considerable freedom to establish working hours and routines, it is interesting to see how holidays have been transformed into work spaces.

This non-stop, 24/7 approach to work has also impacted students, as reflected in the introduction of 24/7 libraries across several universities. Irrespective of their convenience, the onset of 24-hour libraries sends a message to students that there is no natural end to the working day. In this respect, the stress-as-a-virtue approach is tacitly condoned and perpetuated by many higher education institutions.

 

Myth#3: Stress Comes from Outside of Me

A final myth about stress is that it is something that comes from outside of us. It may be an upcoming exam, publishing your first book, applying for jobs or preparing a conference presentation. When we feel stressed in the midst of any of these tasks, the source of the stress is thought to reside outside of us – it is a consequence of the task itself.

The notion of stress coming from outside of us puts us in a disempowering position since there is little we can do to control our external environment. The fact is, there is nothing inherently stress-producing about an exam, a publication, job interview or a conference presentation.

The root of our stress is not the event or situation, it’s the internal dialogue in our minds in relation to that specific task, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we get caught up in our thinking. When we recognize the true source of stress, it becomes much easier to tackle it head on.

So what does all of this mean? It means that if we are going to lower the rates of stress across higher education institutions, we must make a concerted effort to debunk these myths.

  • First, we will need to counter the tendency to normalize stress by appreciating the actual impact it has on our health.
  • Second, we should stop equating the experience of stress with productivity and performance by refusing to wear our stress as a badge of honour.
  • Finally, we need to acknowledge our thought processes as the true source of our stress.

Being Present

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I remember when I was in school my teachers would begin each class by taking attendance. This would usually involve the teacher calling out the name of each student from a class list, to which we would respond ‘present.’ Although I didn’t give much thought to it at the time, taking attendance was an excellent way to start a lesson by bringing everyone’s focus into the classroom.

Taking roll call is not a common practice in higher education institutions. By the time a student reaches this level, it is usually down to them to decide whether or not to attend classes. In any case, since university attendance is generally quite high, there doesn’t appear to be much need to do a roll call prior to lectures and seminars.

Over the years, however, I’ve realized that physically showing up to a class by no means equates to being present in the room. Much of it has to do with the fact that nearly every student today carries a laptop to class. As we’ve moved away from handwriting to typing, a laptop is seen as an essential tool for learning. Yet, it’s also a device that people use in their leisure time. I can’t help but notice a surge in students who simultaneously type notes while skyping friends and surfing the web in the middle of a class.

The inability to focus is not just an affliction that affects today’s students. The tendency to be present without being fully present has become so widespread in our society. For instance, in restaurants, it has become more common than not to see half (if not all) of the people at a table with their eyes glued to their phones. Similarly, the tendency to walk whilst texting seems to be increasing. We seem to be perpetually distracted and completely incapable of focusing on one task whether it’s walking, having dinner or sitting in a classroom.

The inability to be present is deeply problematic. It means that we are less focused and as a consequence, more scattered in our actions and thoughts. It pulls us in several different directions, makes the tasks we are working on less enjoyable, and allows for a higher degree of accidents! It also detracts from our ability to interact with one another. So there are many good reasons to consciously work on our capacity to be fully present.

Although it may not be possible for instructors at university level to start doing a roll call, there are other strategies that can help students in bringing their focus into the present moment. This could involve getting everyone to switch off their devices at the start of a class; taking a few moments to centre and calm everyone before jumping into a lesson; asking students to consciously let go of any thoughts or concerns regarding what they were doing prior to the class and what they need to do after; or simply stating the intentions for the lesson at the outset. These simple strategies can also assist an instructor in getting into the present moment before a class.

Not only would this set a positive tone for each class, and therefore make the experience of learning more enjoyable, it would help create a habit of developing greater presence both inside and outside of the classroom.