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Unpacking my research on bullying in Higher Education

September 15th, 2005

Dr Petra

Today sees the launch of the initial findings from the bullying survey I ran with the Times Higher Education Supplement earlier this year.

The online survey asked about all aspects of bullying and was available for staff to answer throughout June. People were asked to contribute whether they’d experienced bullying, had strong views about it, had witnessed bullying or felt it wasn’t a problem for academia. The survey included rating scales and open-ended questions so people could share their stories and ideas.

Whenever research is launched the media can be supportive of it, or may choose to criticise it. I should know, I’ve used this blog to criticise research many times – and been quoted in newspapers criticising other people’s studies on numerous occasions. Throughout running this bullying research I’ve had to question my behaviour and the times when a ‘vigorous academic debate’ might, to some, have felt like bullying.

I hope on this occasion people aren’t so critical and listen to our findings.

I’ve just heard from over 800 people in an online survey and additional 400+ people in emails all telling me about their bullying experiences in higher education. These are academics and academic-related staff who’re facing regular abuse within their workplace.

I know exactly the criticisms that are going to be raised at the research; I’ve already heard them whilst we were putting this work together. And I also know from experience of being asked to criticise other studies what kind of thing will be levelled at me. So here are my answers.

It’s not a representative study
No survey is ever 100% representative. However we can take steps to make it as accessible as possible. Clearly for this research only people who could access the Internet and have the time to complete the survey could take part, which was a limitation. But of those who did take part we had a wide range of participants – in terms of age, ethnicity, and areas of speciality, job grade, and academic institution. So it was more representative than a survey of one university or group of staff.

You used a funny method to get people to reply

We asked people to use a ‘snowball’ method. This means that they could take the link to the online survey and forward it to colleagues or friends they thought might also be able to answer. Hopefully those who receive the link complete the survey and pass on details. We chose to use this method since evidence suggests bullies who’re in senior positions have been known to block staff access to bullying surveys – a snowball method got around this. It also meant we reached further than THES readers, and could also target those who’d left academia as a result of bullying.

It’s a self-selecting sample
We invited people to participate regardless of their bullying experiences. The survey was specifically designed to account for people who hadn’t been bullied or didn’t believe in bullying, as well as those who had been bullied. Evidently those who were living with bullying were more likely to respond and did complete the survey, but we didn’t specifically target those people only.

You only talked to victims of bullying
The survey was open to everyone working at all levels within Higher Education (HE). We also heard from counsellors, HR departments, union representatives and others linked to HE who also gave us information.

We can’t make decisions based on a few shocking cases

That’s true. Whilst there were some dreadful accounts of appalling bullying going on within HE (including physical assault) we noted, and our participants also emphasised, that the large problem is around lower grade abuse. Petty insults, spreading rumours, verbal abuse, subtle sexism or racism. So the survey has identified these and we’ll be working to share this information to enable staff to overcome these problems – not just the shocking cases.

Your respondents were just not very good at their jobs, not bullying victims

Of the 800+ people who responded, most had been employed an average of seven years and many were in senior positions. The bullying they were describing was about piling on the work, making them feel they weren’t any good at their job, and using university systems to put them down. It wasn’t about them being incompetent. And in cases where there was a problem of competency there are plenty of opportunities to put that right – harassment, verbal abuse or assault isn’t one of them.

Bullying’s not a major problem within universities

Consistently internal university surveys identify levels of bullying at between 12-25%. Our survey didn’t set out to measure the prevalence of bullying. We wanted to know what was going on in HE about bullying. We already knew bullying was a problem – we now also know how debilitating it is and what a negative effect it has on individuals and institutions.

Why did you do the survey, you’re a sex researcher!

As a sex researcher I’ve long been interested in the safety and well-being of researchers. If you’re going to people’s homes or other places to discuss intimate issues, your safety could be at risk. So I have worked for many years around researcher safety and well-being. As I carried out that work many researchers were telling me they didn’t worry about their field work, it was the bullying they suffered in their institutions that caused them stress. So that’s how this study came about.

You only targeted academics

We targeted anyone working in HE. Our respondents included office managers, support and maintenance staff, professors and newly qualified lecturers.

The survey was a piece of journalism for a newspaper, not proper academic research

The THES very kindly supported the survey. I designed, tested and piloted it – and obtained ethical approval for it. They built and hosted it, and reported on the preliminary findings. It’s a unique collaboration between the media and academia. It is both journalism and academic research – which has got to be the best combination you can ask for when you’re trying to get evidence to the public.

Studying bullying is going to upset people, can you be sure you didn’t cause distress?

We took every step not to cause distress. The study was ethically checked before it went live and fully piloted. All participants were shown a list of help resources before and after completing the study, and were given my contact details in case of concern or complaint. Anyone who got in touch with me was also referred to support services for bullying.

So those are the answers to the commonly mentioned criticisms about research, which no doubt will be used to dismiss this study.

All I ask is for you to think about what participants told us consistently ‘ don’t just use this for research – please help us!’

Our job as researchers is to reflect our participants fairly and to help them where we can.

I hope this study will get a fair hearing also – since those 800+ people who were brave enough to speak for the countless others being bullied aren’t just another statistic.

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