Impacted Areas

Brain Drain for Swiss Higher Education and for Switzerland
Mental Health Crisis in Academia
Gender (In)Equality

Brain Drain for Swiss Higher Education and for Switzerland

In recent years, the costs of employee turn-over for companies has increasingly received attention. The consensus: it is expensive. While it is beneficial if there are enough PhDs for both academia and the private or public sector, the costs of losing highly specialized and trained postdocs has so far not really been taken into account. A study by the Center for American Progress has calculated that loosing employees costs between 16% of their salary for hourly, unsalaried employees and 213% of the salary for a highly trained positions. Add to that the average time it takes for an employee to be fully productive on their job, which can be from four months to one or two years, and the cost of losing highly-qualified employees within a few years might make it worth reconsidering the current structure. But so far, no such evaluations seem to have been made for higher education systems in general or for Switzerland specifically.

Mid-level academics not only contribute specialized knowledge to research projects, but often are also part of teaching and administration. Not only does it take time to become a good teacher, often teaching curricula and teaching administration are very specific to departments and universities, which means that renewing mid-level staff every few years has many hidden costs. Thus, even if these postdocs remain within academia, for the home university or the home country this still means a loss of knowledge, especially considering how individual and diverse universities and national higher education systems are.

Furthermore, there are also costs to the quality of the research and knowledge production. Balsiger et al. point out:

However, we can see what professional insecurity costs in the sphere of research and higher education in terms of a loss of competence and creativity. Teachers and researchers are obliged to respond to funding applications in order to complete their research projects and these are extremely time-consuming. If they are successful, they must continue to waste their time, suddenly responsible for managing the contractual workers that the money essentially goes to recruiting. These researchers and research engineers on short-term casual contracts are forced to frequently change research objects and specialisations without being able to capitalise on their increasing knowledge and expertise. How is it possible to produce the original and innovative work that is demanded as part of the recruitment process when each successive contract brings higher entry costs?
It is difficult to see what the advantage of systemic insecurity might be for research and higher education, even if we consider it from the perspective of flexibility, unless we believe that coercion and fear are effective motivators.

Balsiger P, Bodet M-A, Brugidou M, et al. Why a special issue on ‘precarity’? Bulletin of Sociological Methodology/Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique. 2020;147-148(1-2):8-12. doi:10.1177/0759106320939885a

The work environment fostered by the current structures, however, is exactly one of the reasons why researchers leave academia. What would be possible if the mid-level staff in Swiss Higher Education was not primarily surviving but actually thriving at work?


Mental Health Crisis

An area which has only slowly gained attention over the last decade is the toll the current university system is taking on the mental health of its academics. The numbers are staggering. A comprehensive survey published in 2018 by Evans et al. with respondents from 26 countries and 234 institutions shows a global mental health crisis in graduate education: the prevalence of experiencing moderate-severe depression or anxiety compared to the general population is six times higher.

“Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population. Forty-one percent of graduate students scored as having moderate to severe anxiety on the GAD07 scale as compared to 6% of the general population, as demonstrated previously. Additionally, 39% of graduate students scored in the moderate to severe depression range in our study, as compared to 6% of the general population measured previously with the same scale.” (Evans et al. p. 282)

“The strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression support a call to action to establish and/or expand mental health and career development resources for graduate students through enhanced resources within career development offices, faculty training and a change in the academic culture.” (Evans et al. p. 284)

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T. & Vanderford, N. L. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat. Biotechnol. 36, 282–284 (2018). Download

These findings are corroborated by other studies, such as, most recently, by the Cactus Foundation Mental Health Survey (2020).

Levecque et al.’s study from 2017 assessed a sample of PhD students from Flanders, Belgium. Thus, their results stem from a a comparable academic environment to Switzerland. Their results likewise showed that 32% of PhD students are at risk of developing or having developed psychiatric disorder (especially depression). Drawing on occupational health research, they point out that these risks are significantly associated with academic organizational policies (supervision, workplace culture, job demands, work-family balance):

“Organizational policies were significantly associated with the prevalence of mental health problems. Especially work-family interface, job demands and job control, the supervisor’s leadership style, team decision-making culture, and perception of a career outside academia are linked to mental health problems.” (Levecque et al. p. 868)

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. & Gisle, L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46, 868–879 (2017). Download

Times Higher Education, also in 2017, summarized the situation as follows:

“Lack of job security, limited support from management and weight of work-related demands on time among risk factors.”

Else, H. Academics ‘face higher mental health risk’ than other professions. Times Higher Education (THE), (2017).

And the mental health initiative for Geneva, minds. Promotion de la santé mentale Genève clearly states:

“The risk of suffering from psychological disorders is highest among people working without a contract or subject to temporary and precarious contracts. The anxiety generated by the uncertainty and precariousness of employment is therefore more harmful than the absence of employment itself.”

(our translation,

The societal costs for the damage done by this academic system have, so far, not been calculated. In March 2018, the Higher Education Funding Council in England, however, has announced to spend £1.5 million just towards improving mental health at universities.


Gender (In)Equality

The university remains a strongly male-dominated bastion. At the bachelor and master’s levels, Switzerland has achieved parity – and even a slight majority of women. But this is far from being the case when you move up the academic hierarchy. Still only 23,4% of full professors at Swiss universities are women[1]. Data from a study by Klea Faniko on the situation at the University of Geneva[2] shows that this is not because they are less invested in their career. On the contrary, the results of this survey show that women are as committed and motivated as men to advance in their careers and to work more than the official working hours required. Moreover, for many women, their professional ambitions take precedence over their private lives. The low representation of women researchers in high status positions, thus, cannot be attributed to their professional investment, but rather to factors related to the work environment.

One problem is that the structure of career-paths has been historically based on specifically male models. For example, the requirement of international mobility after the PhD puts a strain on family life and drives some researchers – especially women – out of academia, thus deepening gender inequalities[3].

Moreover, Faniko’s study reveals three main barriers to women’s careers:

(1) The university structure is deeply imbued with gender stereotypes and prejudices, which involves sexist attitudes toward women. And sexism, in whatever form, is one of the major obstacles to women’s career advancement (jokes about women’s skills; calling his student “my little one” or “darling”; women are more frequently cut off in meetings when speaking; administrative tasks are entrusted to women assistant rather than to men assistant). This kind of discourse goes hand in hand with a reduction of skills to the physical attributes of the person. The persons interviewed in Faniko’s study clearly highlight that sexism has dire consequences on their life and work because it devalues women researchers in the professional context and thus limits their career progression.

One PhD student interviewed says: “Il y a un prof qui m’appelle ‘mon amour’, c’est le même qui m’a dit que si j’étais engagée c’était peut-être parce que je n’étais pas moche.”

And Faniko points out: “Ce type d’attitude (…) transforme les collaboratrices en objet de désir sexuel” et “dévalorise les compétences professionnelles des femmes en les renvoyant au rôle de fille ou de partenaire poten­tielle.”

Faniko, Klea (2016). Carrière académique à l’Université de Genève. Etude psycho-sociale. Université de Genève, p. 25.

(2) There is a discrepancy in the treatment between men and women by their supervisors. Women report more situations characterized by a lack of support, such as lack of advice, supervision, funding for scientific activities, or lack of promotion from their superiors. A Postdoc interviewed by Faniko says, for example:

“J’ai dû supplier mon chef pour qu’il paye les frais d’inscription à mon prochain congrès. Et c’est toujours la même chose alors que pour son autre post-doctorant il n’y a aucun souci : Il peut avoir tous les financements qu’il veut.”

Faniko, Klea (2016). Carrière académique à l’Université de Genève. Etude psycho-sociale. Université de Genève, p. 25.

(3) Parenthood does not have the same impact on men’s careers as it does on women’s. This obstacle to the professional advancement of women researchers lies especially also in the negative attitudes that hierarchies have towards motherhood, and not necessarily in the ability of parents to reconcile their family life with their professional life. These negative attitudes may be one of the causes why women abandon their academic careers. These negative attitudes can also come from other women. A PhD student interviewed by Faniko shares her experience:

“Ma direc­trice de thèse, quand je lui ai annoncé que j’étais enceinte m’a dit que j’allais gâcher ma carrière, que j’allais même gâcher ma vie. Elle m’a demandé entre les lignes si ce n’était pas possible d’avorter.”

Faniko, Klea (2016). Carrière académique à l’Université de Genève. Etude psycho-sociale. Université de Genève, p. 25.

The conclusion of Faniko’s study makes the point that precariousness and dependent relationship with superiors are fertile ground for harassment, abuse and discrimination.

However, so far there exists no national study for Switzerland to evaluate the situation as a whole and thus also to see what needs to be done to ensure better working conditions. Data on that matter, collected nationally, is urgently needed. Excellent work has been done in the UK by The 1752 Group, including sector guidance and analysis of institutional responses to sexual misconduct[4].

[1] Office fédéral de la statistique (2019). Personnel des hautes écoles universitaires 2018 (Table 5c).

[2] Faniko, Klea (2016). Carrière académique à l’Université de Genève. Etude psycho-sociale. Université de Genève.

[3] Bataille Pierre, Sautier Marie (2019). Ce “qu’être postdoc” veut dire. Cheminements postdoctoraux en Suisse, circa 2010. Philosophia Scientiae, Editions Kime, 2019, 23, pp. 35 – 66.

[4] Bull Anna, Rye Rachel (2018). Institutional responses to staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education. The 1752 Group/University of Portsmouth. Portsmouth, UK.

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