We often think of bullying as something that happens at school, between kids that will later grow out of it. But there is growing evidence that this happens beyond the classroom. Indeed, workplace bullying and harassment is thought to cost the UK economy £18 billion a year, as well as, of course, exacting a personal toll on individuals’ mental health which cannot be measured in money alone.
Yet it would seem that universities in particular have a blind spot when it comes to acknowledging that workplace bullying happens here. Perhaps it is down to a class element. We are happy to acknowledge that bullying could happen in places like Amazon or Sports Direct warehouses. Indeed, there have been many exposés about the abuse faced by such workers.
But we’re perhaps less ready to admit it happens in places like universities, which are usually left-leaning, filled with well-educated, middle-class people. However, the truth is that none of these things are any inoculation against bullying.
On the contrary, universities, as they are currently run, provide the perfect setting for abuse. Bullying thrives in an environment with intense competition and a well-defined hierarchy. In universities, there is often much uncertainty in early years of an academic career; large numbers of junior staff on part-time or temporary contracts compete for a small number of permanent posts. In such an environment, it is easier to keep quiet than speak out than risk one’s future career by being branded a trouble-maker. Ph.D. students are particularly vulnerable as they are reliant on supervisors for references. Furthermore, universities struggle with the same structural inequalities which mark the rest of society, so women, LTGBT+ people, and people of colour are likely to be in positions of less power and so are impacted disproportionately by this issue.
Problems within the teaching body will also have an impact on the student body. Sadly, teaching assistants or lecturers who face bullying are unlikely to perform at their best. They are likely to be more stressed, anxious, and have less time and sympathy for students who are struggling. This is far from the atmosphere of free enquiry and self-expression that is meant to be promoted in universities.
When we talk about mental health within universities, we rightly talk about issues such as rape culture, exam stress, and peer pressure. It’s time to bring academic bulling into the conversation as well.