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Rightly so, there has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the struggles of full-time academic staff in higher education institutions in our previous posts: Higher education, students, the strikes and me*, The strikes and me: never going back! and Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines. For the sake of clarity, this post is not designed to distract from some of the very real problems they face. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the silent voices in lecturing teams: PhD Students who are also Visiting Lecturers (VL’s) or Associate Lecturers (AL’s). Having been both an AL and VL in the past for various higher education institutions, and simultaneously a self-funded PhD student, the experience of those who have very kindly offered to share with me their stories, struggles and often deteriorating coping mechanisms resonate with my own. I am grateful for the unexpected avalanche of responses I received from VL/AL’s from various universities on this very issue, including current and former colleagues. I should stress that this is neither targeted at any one individual university, nor do I claim that these are universal experiences for those in similar positions.
These students are hybrid beings, often stuck in a limbo of loyalty to their respective graduate schools, their fellow lecturing colleagues and the students they teach. Despite this, or perhaps more appropriately because of this, many VL/AL’s are not fully trained or integrated into the roles they are expected to play within the university sector. Firstly, adequate training is almost non-existent in most universities for new starters, who are often expected to simply jump into the deep end without adequate experience. What is available to VL/AL’s in helping with building knowledge and experience in higher education teaching is the offer for them to take ‘independent initiative’ in signing up to undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCert/PGCHE) which leads to a subsequent Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). The experience of taking this course and securing the Fellowship was highly positive amongst those who contacted me prior to the writing of this post, though of course this may vary depending on the institution. The problem is, the course is rarely, if ever, offered before VL/AL’s begin teaching and is often treated as a simple tick box exercise to boost departmental or institutional reputation through an increased number of Associate or full Fellowships within their ranks. Secondly, integration into their roles is often stifled by various reasons, including somewhat critical outlooks within their teams on emerging pedagogical research focused on student experience, misguided assumptions that they are ‘more students than lecturers’ and/or the belief by others that they are not likely to remain as permanent members of the teaching team. These issues relating to hybridity lead to VL/AL’s often feeling as though they do not carry the same “worthy status” by colleagues or the department of being co-creators of the curriculum, being included in important communication relating to decision-making which will affect their ability to carry out their teaching and learning sessions, or in generally expressing discontent for various issues which they are facing in their roles.
One of these issues related to low wages, which is a rather common issue affecting employees across most sectors, especially in the current cost of living crisis. It may seem rather trivial to those in higher education institutions tasked solely with ensuring maximum profit by quantifying the experience of teaching, but the struggles faced by those VL/AL’s on 0-hour contracts are widespread and damaging. Though there are distinct differences across institutions in how these contracts are managed, or how their staff are paid, many practices seem to be commonplace, such as for instance paying solely for hours spent actually teaching. In circumstances where academic staff may spend hours on end preparing for teaching and learning sessions, engaging in a subsequent wind-down of emotions potentially triggered from the sessions, and then engage in copious amounts of marking (sometimes as many as 100 scripts at the same time due to the bunching of deadlines), being paid only on the basis of having taught a 1 or 2 hour session, even at what may seem a reasonable hourly wage in other sectors equates to less than minimum-wage if the maths is done correctly. There are nuanced differences of course between those VL/AL staff who are self-funded and those on studentships or scholarships, the latter receiving a flat-rate annual “salary” alongside a tuition fee waiver. Having said that, those on scholarships or studentships tended to face other challenges throughout the payment process, including lack of automatic payments, breakdown of communication with those organising these manually, and the general slowness in being ‘set up’ for all the admin-related tasks expected of them (including email accounts, e-learning, lack of training etc.).
The challenges of 0-hour contracts, although they are not described as such within the contracts themselves, also include a looming sense of dread for VL/AL academics approaching the summer months, when they know that they will be left penniless by their universities. If on a full-time status, those who are self-funded and undertaking a PhD are also barred from claiming any kind of benefit entitlements due to the receipt of a postgraduate student loan from Student Finance England. It is important to note that the maximum entitlement for this loan is £25,000 over the course of what is, on average, a 3-5 year research project. The average tuition fee for research degrees is over £5,000 per year. At the most ambitious end of the PhD completion scale, undertaking a 3-year research project with a £25,000 loan, leaves a £10,000 remainint total which is expected to help the student survive for 3 years. Of course, most PhDs exceed the 3-year mark and, combined with the challenges of not being paid by their universities over the summer months, this takes a serious toll on mental health which paradoxically affects their ability to dedicate full focus on their research projects. It inevitably leads to VL/AL staff scrambling to “take on” additional modules of teaching in an attempt to save enough to make ends meet throughout the summer, which again leaves them with little time or mental strength to focus on their PhD research.
Mental health is an issue which spans across a variety of challenges faced by VL/AL’s undertaking a PhD. There are intersectional elements which are not taken into consideration by higher education institutions that take a serious toll on their ability to juggle between their roles as facilitators of teaching and learning, students undertaking a PhD, but also human beings with a variety of other important identities in need of comfort, reassurance and support. Many universities fail to recognise nuanced issues arising from increasingly consumer-focused, neoliberal and bureaucratic practices adopted, which leave those who already struggle due to their class status, race, gender, or parenthood, with even less support than one individual characteristic that higher education assumes can be tick boxed away through a single counselling session. Some of the responses I received drew attention to the intersectional nature of class and race, others class and gender, and some even a combination of all three with an inclusion of motherhood or parenthood in general. It seems that experiences have been similar in that many higher education institutions still fail to take into consideration how the challenges associated with each individual identity are exacerbated when combined. These include a lack of acknowledgement that (1) money is a real issue, (2) there are racial, cultural and religious barriers which often mean an increased requirement of attention on family and social life beyond work, (3) certain departments and faculties are still male-centric, (4) motherhood and parenting requires serious review of pay and workload, and (5) many subject or course leaders are failing to recognise their curriculum content and teaching/learning practices are essentially colonising their own colleagues. A former colleague even encompassed all of these identities: an ethnically minoritised working-class mother of two children. One cannot begin to imagine the mental health struggles someone in this position faces during summer months in an ever-failing welfare system.
Academics who have not been through similar intersectional struggles seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge even the existence of them and the genuine impact that they have for their colleagues who spend a large proportion of their day-to-day work life trying (on top of everything else) to resist barriers to gender identities, dispel unconscious racial biases within their teams, or simply to provide their children with the level of care, love and support that they deserve. It can lead to a continuous interplay of unconscious gaslighting by one’s own full-time colleagues – some quotes provided to me by respondents were: “I teach more modules than you do, so you’ll be okay”, “yes but we all had the same amount of marking”, “can’t you do it over the weekend?” and “you need to work on your time management skills”. Despite many of us spending years drawing attention to stigma, oppression, marginalisation and social inequality, deconstructing and reconstructing by-gone theories that reproduce hegemony, we seem to allow it to flourish so easily under our noses and within our own institutions. This can perhaps serve as a reminder for all academics within higher education institutions, but also those focused on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to step up their game by adopting principles of co-creation and genuine participatory change. After all, while the ultimate goal may be the same, the journey must be mapped out by those who have already experienced, and continue to experience, the inclines.
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.
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.
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?
This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery
it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …
yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.