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A race to the bottom

Happy new year to one and all, although I suspect for many it will be a new year of trepidation rather than hope and excitement.

It seems that every way we turn there is a strike or a threat of a strike in this country, reminiscent, according to the media, of the 1970s.  It also seems that every public service we think about (I mean this in the wider context so would include Royal Mail for example,) is failing in one way or another.  The one thing that strikes me though, pardon the pun, is that none of this has suddenly happened.  And yet, if you were to believe media reporting, this is something that is caused by those pesky unions and intransigent workers or is it the other way round?  Anyway, the constant rhetoric of there is ‘no money’, if said often enough by politicians and echoed by media pundits becomes the lingua franca.  Watch the news and you will see those ordinary members of the public saying the same thing.  They may prefix this with ‘I understand why they are striking’ and then add…’but there is no money’.  

When I listen to the radio or watch the news on television (a bit outdated I know), I am incensed by questions aimed at representatives of the railway unions or the nurses’ union, amongst others,  along the lines of ‘what have you got to say to those businesses that are losing money as a result of your strikes or what would you like to say to patients that have yet again had their operations cancelled’? This is usually coupled with an interview of a suffering business owner or potential patient.  I know what I would like to say to the ignorant idiot that asked the question and I’m sure most of you, especially those that know me, know what that is.  Ignorant, because they have ignored the core and complex issues, wittingly or unwittingly, and an idiot because you already know the answer to the question but also know the power of the media. Unbiased, my …. 

When we look at all the different services, we see that there is one thing in common, a continuous, often political ideologically uncompromising drive to reduce real time funding for public services.  As much as politicians will argue about the amount of money ploughed into the services, they know that the funding has been woefully inadequate over the years. I don’t blame the current government for this, it is a succession of governments and I’m afraid Labour laying the blame at the Tory governments’ door just won’t wash.  Social care, for example, has been constantly ignored or prevaricated over, long before the current Tories came to power, and the inability of social care to respond to current needs has a significant knock-on effect to health care.  I do however think the present government is intransigent in failing to address the issues that have caused the strikes.  Let us be clear though, this is not just about pay as many in government and the media would have you believe.  I’m sure, if it was, many would, as one rather despicable individual interviewed on the radio stated, ‘suck it up and get on with it’. I have to add, I nearly crashed the car when I heard that, and the air turned blue.  Another ignoramus I’m afraid.

Speak to most workers and they will tell you it is more about conditions rather than pay per se. Unfortunately, those increasingly unbearable and unworkable conditions have been caused by a lack of funding, budget restraints and pay restraints. We now have a situation where people don’t want to work in such conditions and are voting with their feet, exacerbating the conditions.  People don’t want to join those services because of poor pay coupled with unworkable conditions. The government’s answer, well to the nurses anyway, is that they are abiding by the independent pay review body. That’s like putting two fingers up to the nurses, the health service and the public.  When I was in policing it had an independent pay review body, the government didn’t always abide by it, notably, they sometimes opted to award less than was recommended. The word recommendation only seems to work in favour of government. Now look at the police service, underfunded, in chaos and failing to meet the increasing demands. Some of those demands caused by an underfunded social and health care service, particularly mental health care.

Over the years it has become clear that successive governments’ policies of waste, wasted opportunity, poor decision making, vote chasing, and corruption have led us to where we are now. The difference between first and third world country governments seems to only be a matter of degree of ineptitude.  It has been a race to the bottom, a race to provide cheap, inadequate services to those that can’t afford any better and a race to suck everyone other than the rich into the abyss. 

A government minister was quoted as saying that by paying wage increases it would cost the average household a thousand pound a year. I’d pay an extra thousand pound, in fact I’d pay two if it would allow me to see my doctor in a timely manner, if it gave me confidence that the ambulance would turn up promptly when needed, if it meant a trip to A&E wouldn’t involve a whole day’s wait or being turned away or if I could get to see a dentist rather than having to attempt DIY dentistry in desperation.  I’d like to think the police would turn up promptly when needed and that my post and parcels would be delivered on time by someone that had the time to say hello rather than rushing off because they are on an unforgiving clock (particularly pertinent for elderly and vulnerable people).

And I’m not poor but like so many people I look at the new year with trepidation.  I don’t blame the strikers; they just want to improve their conditions and vis a vis our conditions.  Blaming them is like blaming cows for global warming, its nonsensical.

And as a footnote, I wonder why we never hear about our ex-prime minister Liz Truss and her erstwhile Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng; what a fine mess they caused. But yesterday’s news is no news and yet it is yesterday’s news that got us to where we are now.  Maybe the media could report on that, although I suspect they probably won’t.

Avoiding challenge: A strategy for organisational change

Have you ever wondered as a manager or worker what the best way is to avoid having your ideas challenged?  Tired of trying to make organisational changes and having those changes called into question. Fed up with trying to instigate something only for someone else to be less than keen.  Had enough of trying to do things that will promote your ambitions only to be thwarted by others that just have to add their two pennorth in?  Annoyed at extra work being created for you because of a lack of acceptance of your ideas?  Are you fed up with the ‘nay sayers’?  The answer is simple… don’t communicate anything, just make the changes, and wait for yet another calamity. 

The above of course is somewhat tongue in cheek and I am reminded of working with some consultants several years ago (you know the ones; steal your watch to tell you the time).  I jest, as they had some sage advice on change management. Two things that come to mind: If you think you have communicated enough about change, you haven’t; communicate more.  And find the person or group that needs convincing and work with them, it’s the ‘nay sayers’ that need to be convinced, not the ‘yay sayers’.  They are far more valuable to your organisation than those that say ‘yes’.

What we were talking about was major organisational change, but even small changes can have a major impact on a workforce. In our own organisation a recent staff survey suggested that ‘Over 50% of respondents considered that consultation about change at work is poor’.  That of course relates to previous iterations of change and a new management team would hope to address the issues.  However, in doing so there is a need for organisational change.

I’ve had recent experience of being told that something was happening because someone, in agreement with someone else, thought it was a good idea.  It promotes their department, showing them in a good light; they took the idea to a meeting and lo and behold, it is agreed.  No consultation with those that need to implement the idea, which may be good or bad, who knows.  The point being that it is not just change brought about by managers without consultation that causes annoyance, anxiety and stress, it is those daily working practices of people in the organisation that fear challenge of their ideas.  Changes are often made with the best of intentions.  Sometimes those intentions are to alleviate burgeoning workloads within a department, sometimes to promote the organisation or individuals or to lighten the burden on students, for example.  Often, there is consultation, but it is consultation with the wrong people, consultation with the ‘yay sayers’ and those that have little idea about the impact of the change (for the best will in the world, managers can’t know every detail of the work carried out by their staff).  Such consultation avoids scrutiny but provides a thin veneer of respectability.  Time and again we see staff queuing up to join consultative groups, but how many of these do so with a view to providing a real critique?  Take the idea to a management meeting, get it agreed and there you are, its done.  If asked about consultation, then the answer is ‘yes of course we did’. The problem is nobody asks the question ‘who exactly did you consult with’?

It will take a huge shift in organisational culture to get the ‘nay sayers’ to volunteer for consultative exercises.  They need convincing that their voice is valued and yet they are a valuable asset.   Challenge and scrutiny are healthy and help to mitigate unwanted and unintended consequences.

There is nothing worse than having it done to you when it could so easily have been a case of having it done with you.  Next time you think about changing something, don’t assume you know best, by doing so you demonstrate how little you value others.  

 “Quelle surprise” – another fine mess

The recent HMICFRS publication An inspection of vetting misconduct and misogyny in the police service makes difficult reading for those of us that have or have had any involvement in the police service in England and Wales.  Of course, this is not the first such report and I dare say it will not be the last.  There is enough evidence both academic and during the course of numerous inquiries to suggest that there is institutional corruption of all sorts in the police service, coupled with prevailing racist and misogynistic attitudes.  Hardly a surprise then that public confidence is at an all-time low.

As with so many reports and associated inquiries, the finger of blame is pointed at the institution or individuals within it.  The failings are organisational failings or departmental or individual. I cast my mind back to those inquiries into the failings of social services or the failings of NHS trusts or the failings of the Fire and Rescue service or any other public body, all the fault of the organisation itself or individuals within it.  Too many inquiries and too many failings to count. More often than not the recommendations from these reports and inquiries involve rectifying processes and procedures and increasing training.  Rarely if ever do these reports even dare to dip their toe into the murky waters relating to funding.  Nobody on these inquiries would have the audacity to suggest that the funding decisions made in the dark corridors of government would later have a significant contribution to the failings of all of these organisations and the individuals within them.  Perhaps that’s why those people are chosen to head the inquiries or maybe the funding decisions are long forgotten.

Twenty percent budget cuts in public services in 2010/11 meant that priorities were altered often with catastrophic consequences.  But to be honest the problems go much further back than the austerity measures of 2010/11.  Successive governments have squeezed public services in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness. The result, neither being achieved, just some tinder box ready to explode into disaster.  And yet more hand wringing and finger pointing and costly inquiries.

The problem is not just that the organisations failed or that departments or individuals failed, the problem is that all the failings might have been prevented if there was money available to deliver the service properly in the first place.  And to do that, there needs to be enough staff, enough training, and enough equipment.  And who is responsible for ensuring that happens?

Now you may say that is all very well but what of the police officers that are racist and misogynistic or corrupt and what of institutional corruption? After all the HMICFRS report is not just about vetting procedures but about the attitudes and behaviours of staff.  A good point but let me point you to the behaviour of government, not just this government but preceding governments as well.  The expenses scandal, the bullying allegations, the improper behaviour in parliament, the complete disregard for the ethics or for that matter, common decency. And what of those successive budget cuts and lack of willingness to address very real issues faced by staff in the organisations. 

Let me also point you to the behaviour of the general public from whom the police officers are recruited.  A society where parents that attend children’s football matches and hurl abuse at the referee and linesmen, even threatening to see them in the car park after the match. Not a one off but from recent reports a weekly occurrence and worse.  A society now where staff in shops are advised not to challenge shoplifters in fear of their own safety.  A society where there is a complete disregard for the law by many on a daily basis, including those that consider themselves law abiding citizens.  A society where individuals blame everyone else, always in need of some scapegoat somewhere.  A society where individuals know individually and collectively how they want others to behave but don’t know or disregard how they should behave.

I’m not surprised by the recent reports into policing and other services, saddened but not surprised.  I’m not naïve enough to think that society was really any better at some distant time in the past, in fact there were some periods where it was definitely worse and policing of any sort has always been problematic.  My fear is we are heading back to the worst times in humanity and these reports far from highlighting just an organisational problem are shining a floodlight on a societal one.  But it suits everyone to confine the focus to the failings of organisations and the individuals within them.  Not my fault, not my responsibility it’s the others not me, quelle surprise.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent’

As I write this blog, we await the detail of what on earth government are going to do to prevent millions of our nations’ populations plummeting headlong into poverty.  It is our nations in the plural because as it stands, we are a union of nations under the banner Great Britain; except that it doesn’t feel that great, does it?

As autumn begins and we move into winter we are seeing momentum gaining for mass strikes across various sectors somewhat reminiscent of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979.  A few of us are old enough to remember the seventies with electricity blackouts and constant strikes and soaring inflation.  Enter Margaret Thatcher with a landslide election victory in 1979. People had had enough of strikes, believing the rhetoric that the unions had brought the downfall of the nation. Few could have foreseen the misery and social discord the Thatcher government and subsequent governments were about to sow.  Those governments sought to ensure that the unions would never be strong again, to ensure that working class people couldn’t rise up against their business masters and demand better working conditions and better pay.  And so, in some bizarre ironic twist, we have a new prime minister who styles herself on Thatcher just as we enter a period of huge inflationary pressures on families many of whom are already on the breadline.  It is no surprise that workers are voting to go on strike across a significant number of sectors, the wages just don’t pay the bills. Perhaps most surprising is the strike by barristers, those we wouldn’t consider working class. Jock Young was right, the middle classes are staring into the abyss.  Not only that but their fears are now rapidly being realised.

I listened to a young Conservative member on the radio the other day extolling the virtues of Liz Truss and agreeing with the view that tax cuts were the way forward. Trickle down economics will make us all better off.  It seems though that no matter what government is in power, I have yet to see very much trickle down to the poorer sectors of society or for that matter, anyone.  The blame for the current economic state and the forthcoming recession it seems rests fairly on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin.  Now I have no doubt that the invasion of Ukraine has unbalanced the world economic order but let’s be honest here, social care, the NHS, housing, and the criminal justice system, to name but a few, were all failing and in crisis long before any Russian set foot in the Ukraine.

That young Conservative also spoke about liberal values, the need for government to step back and to interfere in peoples lives as little as possible. Well previous governments have certainly done that. They’ve created or at least allowed for the creation of the mess we are now in by supporting, through act or omission, unscrupulous businesses to take advantage of people through scurrilous working practices and inadequate wages whilst lining the pockets of the wealthy. Except of course government have been quick to threaten action when people attempt to stand up for their rights through strike action.  Maybe being a libertarian allows you to pick and choose which values you favour at any given time, a bit of this and a bit of that.  It’s a bit like this country’s adherence to ideals around human rights.

I wondered as I started writing this whether we were heading back to a winter of discontent.  I fear that in reality that this is not a seasonal thing, it is a constant.  Our nations have been bedevilled with inadequate government that have lacked the wherewithal to see what has been developing before their very eyes.  Either that or they were too busy feathering their own nests in the cesspit they call politics.  Either way government has failed us, and I don’t think the new incumbent, judging on her past record, is likely to do anything different. I suppose there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we have pork markets somewhere or other.  

Capitalism and tourism: an ethical conundrum

After a two-year delay in our holiday booking due to the Covid pandemic, my wife and I were fortunate enough to spend a two-week holiday in Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) on the island of Sal. We’ve been lucky enough to visit the islands several times over the last ten years.  Our first visit was to Boa Vista but since the hotel that we liked no longer seemed to be available through our tour operators, we ended up going to Sal.  When we first visited Boa Vista, there was little to be found outside of the hotel other than deserted beaches and the crashing of the Atlantic waves on the seashore. There was a very large hotel on the other side of the island and a smattering of smaller hotels dotted around, but that was it.  After several visits we began to notice that other hotels were popping up along the seashore and there was a definite sense of development to cater for the holiday trade.  The same can be said of Sal. The first hotel we visited had only just been built and there were the foundations of other buildings creeping up alongside but in the main, it seemed pretty deserted. Now though there are hotels everywhere and a fairly new very large one not that far away from where we stayed.

The first thing you notice as a visitor to the islands is that this is not an affluent country, far from it.  Take a short trip into the town centre and you very rapidly see and sense the pervading poverty.   This is a former Portuguese colony, and it comes as no surprise that it played a strategic role in the slave trade until the late nineteenth century whereupon it saw a rapid economic decline.   Tourism has boosted the economy and plays a significant role in the country’s population, and this became even more evident during our latest visit.  The country is only just recovering from the pandemic and several of the hotels were still mothballed as were the various businesses along the sea front.  I’m not sure what the situation was or is in the country with regards to welfare, but I wouldn’t mind betting that they’d never heard of the word furlough, let alone implemented any such scheme. Quite simply no tourism means no work and no work means no wages, such as they are.  In conversation with a number of the staff at the hotel, it became obvious that they were not only pleased we were there, but that they wanted us to return again.  We were often asked if we would come back and one person, I spoke to pleadingly asked us to return as ‘we need the job’.  Of course, it’s not just us that need to return, it’s all the tourists.  Tourism supports so many aspects of the economy, not just jobs in hotels but local businesses as well.  I think the fact that we keep going back there says something about the lovely people that we’ve been privileged to meet.

But then as I sat one night contently sipping a gin and tonic, debating whether I should have another before dinner, I began to think about whether all of this was ethical.  The hotel we stayed in was part of a large international chain.  Nearly all the hotels are part of large multinational corporations servicing their shareholders.  Whilst my relaxation and enjoyment is great for me, it is on the back of the exploitative nature of the service industry.  A business that probably doesn’t pay high wages, those working in the service industry in this country can probably attest to that, so goodness knows what it’s like in an impoverished place such as Cape Verde.  My enjoyment therefore promotes exploitation and yet vis-a- vie enables people to have much needed work and pay.  Of course, I may have this all wrong and the companies are pouring millions into the country to improve living standards for the inhabitants, and they may pay wages that are very reasonable.  But somehow, because of the nature of business, and the eye on profit margins, I very much doubt it.  When businesses consider business ethics, I wonder how far they cast the ethical net? As for me, it’s a bit of Catch 22, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  But then so much of life seems to be like that. 

Policy, procedures, processes, and failure

Examine any organisation and you will find a myriad of policy and procedures that are designed to inform its processes and guide employees.  On paper, these formalised ideals and directions make absolute sense but frequently they bear no relationship to reality and rather than empowering, they constrain and often demoralise.  These idealistic notions of how an organisation should function facilitate the dehumanising effects of managerial diktat and engender an internalisation of failure amongst employees.

By way of an example, in the 1990s police forces began to consider notions of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in respect of crime investigation.  These SOPs seemed on the face of it to be a good idea.  The police service, driven by government notions of New Public Management, were being measured on crime reduction and crime detection.  Performance indicators were propped up by idealistic notions coming out of government supported by HMIC and the now defunct Audit Commission that catching more criminals would engender a virtuous circle resulting in crime reduction.  Nothing of course, was further from the truth. But the introduction of SOPs was meant to attempt to address police failings. These, certainly in one force, were at the outset seen as a guide, a minimum standard required in an investigation.  They weren’t intended to constrain.

A small department was set up in this force to measure adherence to these SOPs and to report back where there were inherent failures.  For example, on attending a house burglary, the attendant officers were required to take a statement from the householder, and they were required to carry out house to house enquiries in the vicinity.  At the very least, they needed to knock on doors either side of the house that had been burgled and a couple of houses across the road.  Frequently the statement wasn’t taken, or the house-to-house enquiries hadn’t been completed.  It became clear that the officers were failing to carry out simple procedures.  Measuring adherence to SOPs and providing feedback to promote improvement soon resulted in measuring adherence in order to enforce compliance.

In hindsight, there should have been a realisation that the SOPs, far from being helpful were in fact having a detrimental effect.  Where officers could have carried out further investigations based on their professional judgement, they adhered to the minimum required in the SOPs or simply failed to comply with them fully.   This was partially resultant of a notion amongst officers that discretion was being curtailed, but more notably it was driven by other processes and organisational priorities.  These other processes were to do with attendance at other incidents.  Graded as a priority by the control room, officers were being pulled off the burglary investigation and therefore couldn’t comply with the burglary investigation SOPs. Police forces were also being measured on how quickly they responded to and arrived at various calls for service.  There was clearly a direct conflict between management ideals and reality with the officers being set up to fail in one aspect or another.  There were simply not enough staff to do all the work and to manage the overwhelming demands at certain times.

One way of dealing with the failures was to link these to the performance and development review (PDR) process.  The development aspect was a somewhat redundant term as the PDR was all about performance.  Of course, each time the PDR came around the officers had failed to achieve their objectives.  This provided lots of evidence of people not doing their job properly.  In the wider gamut of crime figures officers at various levels began to realise that the only way to avoid accusations of poor performance was to manipulate the crime figures.  In the meantime, those driving the behaviours, washed their hands of them whenever someone was found out, often hiding behind the SOPs and policy.  The misuse of the PDR process and the consistent scrutiny of performance metrics resulted in the internalising of failure by staff.  Whole systems and processes had been set up to measure failure, after all how could success be measured if it could never be achieved.  Of course, it could never be achieved because the ambition and driving force behind this, government’s notions of crime control, were based on ideals and rhetoric not science.  But the overriding fact was that it could never be achieved because there were never enough resources to achieve it. 

The failure of course wasn’t in the officers that didn’t adhere to the SOPs or those that manipulated crime figures to try to avoid overbearing scrutiny, it was the failure of managers to provide adequate resources.  It was a failure of managers to try to understand what reality looked like and it was a failure of managers to deal with the dehumanising effects of policy, procedure and processes.  

Having left the police, I thought higher education would somehow be different.  I don’t think I need to say anymore.

Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines

Another week has flown by, where has the time gone?  Every day I diligently fill out a time sheet, every week I work over my contracted hours and at the end of every week I reflect on the things that have not been done, thinking well when I get time, I’ll have a look at that. 

In conversations around the university, I hear students complaining about the current industrial action, one such conversation suggested it was disgusting that lecturers had been on strike.  Another overheard student conversation thought it was disgusting that students didn’t turn up for lectures and if they were the lecturer they wouldn’t allow them back in class, after all don’t they know how long it must have taken that lecturer to prepare for the class.  Juxtapose this with a workload model that only allows an hour for preparation and marking for every hour spent in the classroom and we have an interesting mosaic of what can only be described as blissful ignorance of what a lecturer’s job entails.

Now I can’t talk about other subject areas but I’m sure that many of the lecturers in those areas will have the same issues that we have in criminology or that I have regarding what we do.   There are some subjects within the criminology discipline that are pretty much the staple diet and as such don’t really change much, after all Bentham’s ideas for instance were formed a couple of centuries ago and teaching a class about Bentham’s ideas won’t really change much over time. That is of course until someone, probably far brighter than me, discovers something about Bentham or produces a different take on Bentham’s writings.  But generally, I suppose I might be inclined to suggest that preparation time for a lecture and seminar around the topic of Bentham’s ideas would not be too lengthy.  But then what is too lengthy? How long would it take to prepare a lecture and a seminar task? That would depend on how much research was required, how many books and papers were read and probably importantly, well it is for me, how prepared the lecturer wants to be for the session.  Do we as lecturers prepare for the lowest common denominator, the student that rarely reads anything and perhaps hardly turns up or do we prepare for the student that is an avid reader and will have read more than what they can find on Wikipedia. How long is a piece of string when it comes to preparation time.

Those of you that might have read my first blog about the industrial action will recall how I described that having been signed off ill with work related stress, I was told that I was burnt out. One of the questions in conversation was whether I ever turned off, the answer of course was no. And it is still difficult to do that, Criminology is one of those disciplines that is all consuming. I watch the news, or I read about something, and I immediately think of criminological aspects.  I must admit most of the time I have the Metropolitan Police to thank for that.  There doesn’t seem to be much delineation, certainly in terms of cerebral activity, between being at work and being off.  I want to make my lectures, seminars or workshops (call them what you will) interesting and current.  By exploring current issues in society, I end up researching both the current and historic, I end up making links between reality and theory and I produce what I hope is thought provoking and interesting subject matter for consumption in class. I have recently prepared a workshop which required me to read two IPCC reports and a three hundred word plus transcript of a civil case, all highly relevant to the topic of failed investigations.  The civil case took me to 10 other stated cases.  I can’t tell you exactly how long it took me, but it was longer than a day.  Most of it in my own time because the topic is of interest to me.  Lecturing, the acquisition of knowledge and at times the production of knowledge takes time, often the lines are blurred as to whose time is being used.  My seeds of ideas and basic research are often in my time not my employer’s time.  To have students turn up unprepared for my workshops, to turn up late (frequently) to fail to engage and then to have the gall to bemoan industrial action is soul destroying.  To have a workload model that allows a pitiful time for preparation of lectures is simply ignorance and quite frankly, crass.  We are in higher education not a sausage factory. 

It is easy then, to see on reflection, where my time has gone each week.  Given the work entailed in lecturing and the myriad of other requirements, it is hardly a surprise that there is a successful mandate for continued industrial action.  I’m working more hours than is stated in my contract, cheating a bit on ASOS because it feels impossible not to, and I still can’t get anywhere near to fulfilling my workload.  When I fill out my time sheet, I don’t include all of my own time as I’ve described above.

I won’t stop formulating my ideas. I wont stop using my own time to further my knowledge so that I can pass it on to students that are interested.  But I would like some acknowledgement that the current system employed for gauging my workload is out of kilter with reality.  And for those students that put the effort in and by doing so make my classes enjoyable, I am extremely grateful. As for the rest, well I suppose ignorance is bliss.

The strikes and me: never going back!

I woke up this morning, at 4am to be precise, with a jumble of thoughts going through my mind.  In my bleary eyed, docile state I wondered whether the cats’ body clocks had gone awry, and they thought it was breakfast time (I don’t need an alarm clock) or whether it was an age thing and I shouldn’t have had that cup of tea at 10 o’clock last night (I hate getting old), but no, it’s strike day again and it weighs heavy on my mind.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not wavering, far from it, but I do reflect on the impact, and it bothers me, and I know it bothers my colleagues. It bothers me that the students are caught up in this and I have been at pains to explain to my classes why we are on strike and to try to mitigate some of the impact, but I know I cannot mitigate all of it.  The business we are in is education and that education relies on lecturers, surprisingly enough, take away the lecturers and there is no education.  I know that every day I’m on strike, there are topics that I’m not covering in class and there is no one else to cover them; no I’m not irreplaceable but I do add real value.

I struggle with the concept of ASOS and once again I am not alone. ASOS has meant that things are just not getting done, even though I’m still working at least a couple of hours a week over my contracted hours.  Not strictly ASOS I know, but it’s difficult to stick to the rules when doing so would cause everything to grind to a halt. I still have to do my teaching and marking and second marking and look at draft dissertations and have meetings with dissertation students and spend what seems like an interminable amount of time on emails (which by diktat have to be answered in two days).  I still have to prepare for my classes as I’m not a performing seal and do have to think about it before hand.  I still have to communicate with my colleagues and with the less experienced provide a guiding hand and I’m sure there are a myriad of other things I do that I haven’t mentioned. 

But I have not wavered and nor will I.  When I hear management talking about the cost of fuel going up, the state of the sector’s finances, the value of student fees compared to a few years ago, woe is me, when I see how management can treat their workers (P&O Ferries comes to mind alongside some of the other horror stories affecting both higher and further education), it simply reminds me of two things; they are out of touch and they don’t care. Insulated from the real world, their response to our very real concerns about workloads and our ever-diminishing pay, is that they’ll look into it.  Looking into it isn’t doing anything about it. Looking into it doesn’t fix my workload and, in the meantime, I’m still dealing with the aftermath of new IT systems that don’t work properly and cause significant extra work (maybe someone should have looked into that before foisting it upon the unsuspecting student and lecturer body).  I knew there was something I’d left out in the above paragraph.

One thing ASOS has taught me, there is too much to do nearly every week. I look at the things that are not done and I lament when I see that it has impacted on students.  My PDR means nothing if I haven’t the time to achieve the objectives, the mandatory training (so important that’s it’s done by eLearning; that’s another story), sits waiting to be done when I have time; and I’m constantly playing catchup.  I work in a system that thrives on making me feel guilty for not achieving. My reality though is so far removed from the workload plan that the plan has no meaning, other than to serve as a tool to beat me up with.

I am angry.  I am angry that I have been forced to go on strike. I am angry about the way that I have been treated in the past and I am angry that there has been little progress made.  I am angry about the impact that all of this is having on my students.  ASOS though has taught me one thing, there is such a thing as work/life balance and when the strikes are over, I am never going back to working the way I did before.  I have a contract and I’m sticking to it. None of this is my fault, I didn’t invent this system and I’m not the one out of touch with reality. I’m not wavering in my resolve, regardless of any future ballot, the principles of ASOS are here to stay.

Higher education, students, the strikes and me*

It was somewhat disappointing to read some of the comments purportedly from a university student in our local newspaper the other week. Critical of the current UCU industrial action and its impact on students, the student suggested that lecturers knew what they were signing up for and should just get on with it. I found it interesting and somewhat incongruent with what the national student union stance is (actually, I was livid).  I know there has been a response to the article from the local union representative and other comments perhaps suggesting that my previous blog should be read (I wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would have signed up for what I described). But just to be clear, I signed (or my union did on my behalf) a contract that states I am required to work 37 hours a week with the occasional evening or weekend work and that the normal working week is Monday to Friday.  I take the meaning of ‘occasional’ as the definition found in the English dictionary (take your pick as to which one you’d like to use), which is not ‘permanently’ or ‘all of the time’ or ‘ad infinitum’.  I can only speak for myself and not for my colleagues, but I don’t mind working a little longer at times and working the weekend to do marking or open days, but I didn’t sign up to be working all of the time.  So, for me the industrial action is not just about my working conditions but about a contract, a legal obligation, which I am fulfilling but my employer seems to suggest that I am not because I am not working far in excess of my contracted hours.  That to me, is illogical.  

I remember a discussion where a senior manager stated that bullying included giving someone excessive workloads. I wonder whether that means that most lecturers are being bullied by management, isn’t there a policy against that? And then I seem to recall that there is some legislation against inequality, would that not include paying lower wages to women, disabled staff and people from minority ethnic groups? Systemic bullying and discrimination, not a pretty picture in higher education.  

But perhaps the most important point is that as lecturers we don’t want to impact our student’s education, and this shouldn’t be about us versus the students.  It’s what management would like because it detracts from so many issues that plague our higher education system.  Students should quite rightly be unhappy with their lot.  A system that plunges students into a lifetime of debt that they will rarely if ever be able to repay and at the same time lines the pockets of private companies seems to me to be immoral.  A system that requires students to pay extortionate fees for accommodation is completely bonkers especially when it means the less affluent students have to work to afford to live.  A system that requires students to study for approximately 46 hours per week in semester time (If we accept that they are entitled to holiday time) seems overly punitive. Couple this with the need to work to afford to live and it becomes unsustainable.  Add to that any caring responsibilities or anything else that complicates their lives, and it starts to look impossible.  I and my colleagues are not really surprised that so many fail to properly engage, if at all, and that there are so many stressed students and students with mental health issues.  Of course, if we add to that individual capabilities, think unconditional offers and low school grades and let’s be honest widening participation becomes simply a euphemism for widening deBt, misery and, more importantly establishment profit. 

The students were on strike for one day the other week, someone asked me why, well I rest my case.  Whilst I understand student anger about the strikes, that anger is directed at the wrong people.  We all signed up for something different and it’s simply not being delivered.    

*The first part of this entry can be found here.

Higher education, the strikes and me

I joined the UCU last year, the first time I’d ever been a member of a union in my 43 years of working life. Admittedly, thirty years of that working life was spent in policing where membership of a union was unlawful.  Yes, there was the Police Federation but to be honest it was a bit of a toothless tiger.  During my career I saw successive governments hack away at pay and conditions in policing, sometimes only to be halted from catastrophic changes when they thought there might be an all-out mutiny, an example of which was the reaction to the Sheehy Inquiry in the early 1990s.  In that policing career I was called upon to be involved in policing of pickets, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not.  I never thought about joining a union or being part of a picket and when I started a second career in Higher Education, I didn’t think about it then.  But my experiences in higher education over the last few years has driven me to join a union, mismanagement in various guises, has driven me to join.

I thought it somewhat ironic when I first saw the UCU posters declaring ‘we are at breaking point’; too late I thought, I’ve already been broken, and whilst I may have recovered, the scars are still there.  Thirty years of policing, with all the horrors, the stresses and the strains didn’t break me, but 7 years of higher education managed to do so.

A couple of years ago, having been ill, resulting a short stay in hospital, I found myself on a farcical fast track of phased return to work.  I managed to get back to some form of normality with the help of my colleagues, who took the brunt of my workload; I will return to that later.  The new normality was however short lived, Covid hit, and we all went into lockdown and teaching online.  It seemed that we might weather the storm and later the same year, amidst reported complaints from students about lockdowns, teaching online and mental health, our institution like nearly every other university in the country vowed there would be face-to-face teaching.  And of course, if you promise it, you have to deliver it, particularly if you are under pressure from national student bodies about refunds and the like.  As Covid took hold in earnest, as reports came in about people dying in the thousands, as the proliferation of news suggested who were the most vulnerable, and as we saw 50% of our team leave to join other institutions, our managers continued to insist that we do face to face teaching.  Three members of staff could work 5 days a week, teaching over 250 students.  The maths was confounding, the incredibility of it all was only surpassed by the staggering management determination to ensure that at least 2 hours of face-to-face teaching took place.  The breath-taking simple-mindedness saw suggestions of cramming students, 40 at time into hired, poorly ventilated, venues.  The risks were quite simply ignored, government guidelines were side-lined as were the university’s promises of a Covid secure environment.  It was apparent, nobody cared; all that mattered was delivery of 2 hours of face-to-face teaching. The university had decreed it and so it had to be done.

If that wasn’t bad enough, our team had to endure machinations around how many new staff to advertise for.  Three had left to be replaced by two because of the uncertainty around student recruitment. Even when we had ridden the wave of Covid, if we survived it unscathed, we were to be worked to the bone. The fifty to sixty odd hours a week would have to be increased. Nobody cared, just do what you are told and get on with it. Make use of associate lecturers, we were told, when we had very few and they were threatening to leave.  Recruit more, from where we asked and what about their training?  Such trivial matters were met with stony silence, face to face teaching, that was the mantra.

I remember one meeting, my colleagues will tell you about one meeting, where enough was enough. I was done and I couldn’t do anymore, I didn’t argue, I didn’t get cross, I just stopped, numbed by the sheer callousness and stupidity of it all.  Signed off sick with work related stress I was told I was mentally burnt out.  I was asked whether I ever switched off from work, the answer was no.  Not because I didn’t want to, of course I did.  But with lectures to prepare and deliver, with modules to manage, with Blackboard sites to build, with expectations of visiting schools and working open days, with expectations of helping with validations, with the incessant marking and second marking with dissertation tutorials and personal academic tutorship and the myriad of other tasks, I couldn’t switch off.  Working evenings and weekends to keep up has been the norm, working even harder to buy space to take annual leave became unmanageable.  Hollow words from management suggesting we have to take our annual leave.  Hollow because they do not give you the time to do it.  An extra closed day was the reward for our hard work, thank you, I worked that day as well.  And after my absence from work, another attempt at fast tracking my phased return.  And a return to full time work just meant a continuation of the fifty hours plus working week.  My colleagues took a lot of work, too much work, to try to help manage workloads.  So not just a return to challenging workloads for me but a guilt trip as well, as I felt I hadn’t been pulling my weight.  On the one hand the institution makes the right noises, Covid safe environments and occupational health assistance and on the other its managers give scant regard for the human beings that work for them. Utilising outdated and unfathomable workload management tools, they manipulate data to provide a thin veneer of logic and fairness.  If ever there were a good example of neo-Taylorism, look no further than higher education.   

I’ve been on strike because of what happened to me and because of what is happening to my colleagues across the country.  A failure to acknowledge working conditions, a failure to treat staff with dignity and respect and a failure to provide equal opportunity shows how little managers care for higher education vis-a-vis profit.  I’ve been on strike because I don’t want my colleagues to be burnt out.  I’ve been on strike because I don’t know how else to try to change the future for those that work in higher education.  I don’t want to strike, I don’t want to impact my student’s education, but my colleagues are at breaking point, what else should we do?

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