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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.
Spend, Spend, Spend!
It is that time of year where I start to appear to be like the Grinch that Stole Christmas (before the happy ending). Whilst I love to spend time with family and friends during Christmas, I find the excessive consumption that surrounds this festive holiday to be quite problematic.
It is only November yet the annual hysteria surrounding Christmas is being pushed via the news, adverts, social media and shops selling all things deemed ‘Christmassy’. With it being Black Friday today this issue is likely to intensify. This worries me, it was only this week that I happened to be watching a television programme where a caller phoned the show ask the host;
If I am already in 50K (ish) worth of debt can you help me borrow another 3k so that I can buy Christmas presents?
It might seem easy to see debt as an individual issue. Yet, if using a bit of criminological imagination, debt can be perceived as an issue that is influenced by culture, and by capitalism, which encourages people to buy things even if they cannot afford to do so.
I do worry about the strains that Christmas may have on those workers who are already working in very poor working conditions, and with very poor pay. Especially as capitalism continues to be oppressive along citizenship, class, gender and race lines.
How will those that work in sweatshops find the increased Christmas demand? If a bit of extra pay is possible perhaps this might be welcomed, (especially due to the effect of covid), but this does not erase the issues of exploitation. Some people may say that capitalism is needed for survival and human ‘advancement’. In the past, ideas about human advancement have been used to justify the most brutal experiences of enslaved and colonised people. I am no expert but it seems that, in contemporary society, this so called ‘advancement’ is having dire effects on many, including the living situations for indigenous people and the planet.
Surely there is room to operate in a way which balances the profit based motive with more ethical considerations of humans?…Or maybe the whole system needs to change? What would happen if people were able to be critical of capitalism. Or for those that are already critical, what if they really thought about whether they need to buy all of the items in their online baskets? What if those with disposable income find that they have lots of savings due to reducing spending and decide to gave the money to charity (/or to those that need it more than them)? I wonder if this would then encourage businesses to becomes both more ethical and affordable.
Rest assured, I am not writing this post to be smug about my own lifestyle. Although, I will never really fully understand why people want to have/buy so many things with such high levels of inequality.
“Letters from America”: II
Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.
Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.
Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?
The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.
This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.
I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.
A Useful Degree of Debt?
In 2012 Steve Hall noted that “more than 100,000 of young unemployed people have degrees” (Hall 2012:62). Five years on there is little to suggest that this frightening situation has improved. Worse still, due to changes in the financial organisation of the university sector, the next cohort of undergraduate students could be expected to pay over £9,000 a year in tuition fees. The current situation often throws up a very important question: ‘Is having a degree actually worth the accumulation of all that debt?’ Like everything in social science, the answer is by no means a straightforward one; there are a number of things that need to be considered. Firstly, oversaturation is a crucial factor. With more and more people finding their way to university, perhaps in part because of increased societal pressure and limited employment opportunities, it has been suggested that an undergraduate degree has simply become the ‘next A level’. Something to do after college that does not mean ‘signing on’ or accepting the most tenuous scraps of unsuitable work for minimum wage.
Alongside this potential relegation of the undergraduate degree, the reality of almost relentless pressure sustained over a three year period needs to be considered. Whilst all universities across the country enrol scores of interested students, many of these institutions also attract those simply, and understandably, looking for something to do. Students are often not prepared for the amount of work that obtaining a degree requires. Indeed, many lecturers can relate to Fisher’s (2009) recollection of students protesting about being asked to read for more than a few sentences, or that anything that intends to remove students from the sensations of texting, Facebook or Snap Chat often gets chastised as constituting the boring denial of something more immediately gratifying. The reality is that students who simply ‘find’ themselves at university often struggle to realise their potential or avail themselves of the opportunity.
Nevertheless, the experience can be immensely rewarding and the achievement of a degree may serve to reveal occupational avenues that might not otherwise have been considered possible. Studying for a degree at university not only allows you to acquire a unique knowledge base and skill set but provides the space for ideas and concepts to be approached in novel ways, perspectives to be changed and horizons broadened. Ultimately a degree can be a worthwhile endeavour if maximum effort is put into achieving the best degree one is capable of. Sadly, that is certainly not to say that it will provide an infallible passport to a future of financial stability. That permit may only be granted in a more equitable society, one that can only be brought about by the radical transformation of existing social, economic and political arrangements.
Justin Kotzé, April 2017
Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books.