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ASUU vs The Federal Government

It will be 8 months in October since University Lecturers in Nigeria have embarked on a nationwide strike without adequate intervention from the government. It is quite shocking that a government will sit in power and cease to reasonably address a serious dispute such as this at such a crucial time in the country.

As we have seen over the years, strike actions in Nigerian Universities constitute an age-long problem and its recurring nature unmasks, quite simply, how the political class has refused to prioritise the knowledge-based economy.

In February 2022, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) leadership
(which is the national union body that represents Nigerian University Lecturers during disputes) issued a 4-week warning strike to the Nigerian government due to issues of funding of the public Universities. Currently, the striking University Lecturers are accusing the government of failing to revitalise the dilapidated state of Nigerian Universities, they claim that the government has refused to implement an accountability system called UTAS and that representatives of the government have continued to backtrack on their agreement to adequately fund the Universities.

The government on the other hand is claiming that they have tried their best in negotiating with the striking lecturers – but that the lecturers are simply being unnecessarily difficult. Since 2017, several committees have been established to scrutinize the demands and negotiate with ASUU, but the inability of these committees to resolve these issues has led to this 8-month-long closure of Nigerian Universities. While this strike has generated multiple reactions from different quarters, the question to be asked is – who is to be blamed? Should the striking lecturers be blamed for demanding a viable environment for the students or should we be blaming the government for the failure of efforts to resolve this national embarrassment?

Of course, we can all understand that one of the reasons why the political class is often slow to react to these strike actions is because their children and families do not attend these schools. You either find them in private Universities in Nigeria or Universities abroad – just the same way they end up traveling abroad for medical check-ups.  In fact, the problems being faced in the educational sector are quite similar to those found within the Nigerian health sector – where many doctors are already emigrating from the country to countries that appreciate the importance of medical practitioners and practice. So, what we find invariably is a situation where the children of the rich continue to enjoy uninterrupted education, while the children of the underprivileged end up spending 7 years on a full-time 4-year program, due to the failure of efforts to preserve the educational standards of Nigerian institutions.

In times like these, I remember the popular saying that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. The elephants in this context are both the federal government and the striking lecturers, while those suffering the consequences of the power contest are the students. The striking lecturers have not been paid their salaries for more than 5 months, and they are refusing to back down. On the other hand, the government seems to be suggesting that when they are “tired”, they will call off the strike. I am not sure that strike actions of the UK UCU will last this long before some sort of agreement would have been arranged. Again, my heart goes out to the Nigerian students during these hard times – because it is just unimaginable what they will be going through during these moments of idleness. And we must never forget that if care is not taken, the idle hand will eventually become the devil’s workshop!

Having said this, Nigerian Universities must learn from this event and adopt approaches through which they can generate their income. I am not inferring that they do not, but they just need to do more. This could be through ensuring large-scale investment programs, testing local/peculiar practices at the international level, tapping into research grant schemes, remodeling the system of tuition fees, and demonstrating a stronger presence within the African markets. As a general principle, any institution that wishes to reap the dividends of the knowledge-based economy must ensure that self-generated revenues should be higher than the government’s grants – and not the other way. So, Universities in Nigeria must strive to be autonomous in their engagements and their organisational structure – while maintaining an apolitical stance at all times.

While I agree that all of these can be difficult to achieve (considering the socio-political dynamics of Nigeria), Universities must remember that the continuous dependence on the government for funds will only continue to subject them to such embarrassments rather than being seen as respected intellectuals in the society. Again, Nigerian Universities need a total disruption; there is a need for a total overhaul of the system and a complete reform of the organisational structure and policies.

World Mental Health Day 2022

Monday marked World Mental Health day, that one day of the year when corporations and establishments which act like corporations tell us how much mental health matters to them, how their worker’s wellbeing matters to them. Given many sectors are affected by industrial action, or balloting for industrial action, this seems like a contradiction. Could it be possible that these industries and government are causing mental ill health, while paying lip service as a PR tool? Could it be that capitalism and inequalities associated with it are both the cause of mental health conditions and the very thing that prevents recovery from it?

Capitalism, I argue, is the root of a lot of society’s problems. The climate crisis is largely caused by consumerism and our innate need for stuff. The cost of living crisis is more like a greed crisis, since the rich are getting richer and the corporations are making phenomenal profits while small business struggle to make ends meet and what used to be the middle class are relying on food banks, getting second jobs and wondering whether they can afford to put the heating on. No wonder swathes of us are suffering with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Of course, I cannot argue that capitalism is to blame for all manner of mental health conditions as that is simply not the case. There are many causes of mental health conditions which simply cannot be blamed on the environment. The mental health conditions I discuss here are the depression and anxiety that so many of us suffer as a result of environmental stressors, namely capitalist embedded society.

The mental health epidemic did not start with the current ‘crises’[1] though. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic contributes and exacerbates already existing inequalities and the UK saw an increase in adults reporting psychological distress during the first two years of the pandemic, yet fewer were being diagnosed, perhaps due to inaccessibility of GPs during this time. Even before all these things which have exacerbated mental health conditions, prevalence of common mental disorders has been increasing since the 1990s. At the same time, we have seen in the UK, neoliberal ideology and austerity politics privatise parts of the NHS and decimate funding to services which support those with needs relating to their mental health.

I am not a psychologist but I know a problem when I see or experience one. Several months ago, I was feeling a bit low and anxious so I sought help from the local NHS talking therapies service. The service was still in restrictions and I was offered a series of six DBT-based telephone appointments. After the first appointment, I realised that this was not going to help. It was suggested to have a structure in my life. I have a job, doctoral studies, dog, home educated teenager, and I go to the gym. Scheduling and structure was already an essential part of my life. Next, I was taught coping skills. ‘Get some exercise’, ‘go for a walk’. Ditto previous session – I’m gym obsessed, with a dog I walk every day, mostly in green spaces. My coping skills were not the problem either. What I realised was that I didn’t need psychological help, I needed my environment to change. I needed my workload to be reduced, my PhD to finally end, my teenage daughter not to have any teenage problems, my dog to behave, for someone to pay my mortgage off, and a DIY fairy to fix the house I don’t have time to fix. No amount of therapy could ever change these things. I realised that it wasn’t me that was the problem – it was the world around me.

I am not alone. The Mental Health Foundation have published some disturbing statistics:

  • In the past year, 74% of people (in a YouGov survey of 4,619) have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.
  • Of those who reported feeling stressed in the past year, 22% cited debt as a stressor.
  • Housing worries are a key source of stress for younger people (32% of 18-24-year-olds cited it as a source of stress in the past year). This is less so for older people (22% for 45-54-year-olds and just 7% for over 55s).

The data show not only the magnitude of the problem, but they also indicate some of the prevalent stressors in these respondents’ lives. Over 1 in 5 people cited debt as a stressor, and this survey was undertaken long before the cost of greed crisis. It is deeply concerning, particularly considering the anticipated increase in interest rates and the cost of energy bills at the moment.

The survey also showed that young people are concerned about housing, and this will have a disproportionate impact on care leavers who may not have family to support them and working class young people who cannot afford housing.

The causes of both these issues are predominantly fat cat employers who can afford to pay sufficient and fair wages, fat cat landlords buying up property in droves to rent them out at a huge profit, not to mention the fat cat energy suppliers making billions when half the country is now in fuel poverty. All the while, our capitalism loving government plays the game, shorting the pound to raise profits for their pals while the rest of us struggle to pay our mortgages after the Bank of England raised interest rates. No wonder we’re so stressed!

For work-related stress, anxiety and depression, the Labour Force Survey finds levels at the highest in this century, with 822,000 suffering from such mental health conditions. The Health and Safety Executive show that education and human, health and social work are the industries with the highest prevalence of stress, anxiety and depression.  It is yet another symptom of neoliberalism which applies corporate values to education and public services, where students are the cash cow, and workers are exploited; and health and social work being under funded for years. Is it any wonder then that both nurses and lecturers are balloting for industrial action right now?

Despite all this, when World Mental Health Day arrives, it becomes the perfect PR exercise to pay lip service to staff wellbeing. The rail industry are in a period of industrial action, yet I have seen posts on rail companies’ social media promoting World Mental Health Day. Does the promotion of mental health initiatives include fair pay and conditions for staff? I think not.

Something needs to give, but what?

As a union member and representative, I argue for the need for employers to pay staff appropriately for the work they do, and to treat them fairly. This would at least address work and finance related stressors. Sanah Ahsan argues for a universal basic income, for safe and affordable housing and for radical change in the structural inequalities in the UK. Perhaps we could start with addressing structural inequalities. Gender, race and class all impact on mental health, with women more likely to be diagnosed with depression, Black women at an increased risk of common mental health disorders and the poor all more likely to suffer mental health conditions yet less likely to receive adequate and culturally appropriate support. In my research with women seeking asylum, there is a high prevalence of PTSD, yet therapy is difficult to access, in part due to language difficulties but also due to cultural differences. Structural inequalities then not only contribute to harm to marginalised people’s mental health, but also form a barrier to support.

I do not have a realistic solution, but I have the feeling society needs a radical social change. We need an end to structural inequalities, and we need to ensure those most impacted by inequalities get adequate and appropriate support. When I look to see who is in charge, and who could be in charge if the tides were to turn, and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.


[1] I’m hesitant to call them crises. As Canning (2017:9) explains in relation to the refugee ‘crisis’, a crisis is unforesessable and unavoidable. The climate crisis has been foreseen for decades, and the cost of living crisis is avoidable if you compare other European countries such as France where the impact has been mitigated by the government. The mental health crisis has also been growing for a long time and the extent to which we say today could be both foreseen and avoided.

Food Banks: The Deserving vs Undeserving  

Image source: https://smk.org.uk/awards_nominations/movementtoendchildfoodpoverty/

A term that has been grating on me recently is ‘hard work’. I have had a recent bout of watching lots of television. From my observations it appears that more commentators within the media have grasped the idea that the continued need for Food Banks in the United Kingdom is awful. Yet commentators still continue with the same old deserving/undeserving tripe which has existed for centuries (which CRI2002 students are well-aware of). That being, that we should be concerned about food banks… ‘because now even hard-working people are using them!’, aka those within formal (preferably full-time) employment.  

What is it that is not being said by such a statement? That being unable to survive off benefits is perfectly fine for people who are unemployed as they do not deserve to eat? If that is the case perhaps a reconsideration of the life experiences of many unemployed people is needed.  

To provide some examples, a person might claim unemployment benefits because they are feeling mentally unwell or harmful to themselves but a variety of concerns have prevented them from seeking additional support and claiming sickness benefits, in this situation working hard on survival might be prioritised over formal employment. Another person might sacrifice their work life to work hard to unofficially care for relatives who have slipped through cracks and are unknown to social services, whilst not reaching out for support due to fear/a lack of trust social services – they have good reasons to be concerned. Some people might have dropped out of formal employment due to experiencing a traumatic life event(/s) which means that they now need to work hard on their own well-being. Or, shock-horror, people may be claiming unemployment benefits because they are working hard post-pandemic to find a job which pays enough for them to survive.  

Image source: https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/giving-up-the–deserving–and–undeserving–poor-dichotomy

Let’s not forget that many of those who access Food Banks are on sickness benefits because they cannot work due to experiencing a physical and/or mental health disability. The underserving/deserving divide appears to be further blurred these days as those who claim sickness benefits are frequently accused of being benefits cheats and therefore undeserving of benefits and Food Bank usage. Even so, the acknowledgement of disability and Food Bank usage within the media is rare.  

Is it really ok to perceive that the quality of a person’s life and deserved access to necessities should depend on their formal employment status?  

There is twisted logic in the recent conservative government discourse about hard work. There is the claim that if we all work hard we will reap the rewards, yet in the same breath ‘deserving hard workers’ are living from payslip to payslip due to the cost of living crisis, poor quality pay and employment. Hence the need to use Food Banks.  

The conservatives hard working mantra that all people can easily gain employment is certainly a prejudiced assumption. With oppressive, profit seeking, exploitative and poor quality employment there is little room allowed for humans to deal with their personal, family life pains and struggles which makes job retention very difficult. Perhaps the media commentators need a re-phrase: It is awful that any person needs to use a Food Bank!  

Stop strip searching children!

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.

The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.

A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.

These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?

What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.

Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.

Youth or Adult: can you tell?

This week’s blog begins with a game: youth or adult, secure estate in England and Wales. Below are some statements, and you simply need to guess (educated guesses please), whether the statement is about the youth, or adult secure estate. So, are the statements about children in custody (those under the age of 18 years old) or adults in custody (18+). When you’re ready…

  • 70% decrease in custody in comparison to 10 years ago
  • Segregation, A.K.A Solitary Confinement, used as a way of managing the most difficult individuals and those who pose a risk to themselves or others
  • Racial disproportionality in relation to experiencing custody and being remanded to custody
  • Self-harm is alarmingly high
  • 1/3 have a known mental health disability
  • Homelessness after release is a reality for a high proportion of individuals
  • Over half of individuals released from custody reoffend, this number increases when looking at those sentenced to 6months of less

How many did you answer youth secure estate, and how many adult secure estate? Tally up! Did you find a 50/50 split? Did you find it difficult to answer? Should it be difficult to spot the differences between how children and adults are treated/experience custody?

All of the above relate specifically to children in custody. The House of Commons Committee (2021) have argued that the secure estate for children in England and Wales is STILL a violent, dangerous set of environments which do little to address the needs of children sentenced to custody or on remand. Across the academic literature, there is agreement that the youth estate houses some of the most vulnerable children within our society, yet very little is done to address these vulnerabilities. Ultimately we are failing children in custody! The Government said they would create Secure Schools as a custody option, where education and support would be the focus for the children sent here. These were supposed to be ready for 2020, and in all fairness, we have had a global pandemic to contend with, so the date was pushed to 2022: and yet where are they? Where is the press coverage on the positive impact a Secure School will make to the Youth estate? Does anyone really care? A number of Secure Training Centres (STCs) have closed down across the past 10 years, with an alarmingly high number of the institutions which house children in custody failing Ofsted inspections and HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2021) found violence and safety within these institutions STILL a major concern. Children experience bullying from staff, could not shower daily, experience physical restraint, 66% of children in custody experienced segregation which was an increase from the year prior (HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 2021). These experiences are not new, they are re-occurring, year-on-year, inspection after inspection: when will we learn?

The sad, angry, disgusting truth is you could have answered ‘adult secure estate’ to most of the statements above and still have been accurate. And this rings further alarm bells. In England and Wales, we are supposed to treat children as ‘children first, offenders second’. Yet if we look to the similarities between the youth and adult secure estate, what evidence is there that children are treated as children first? We treat all offenders the same, and we treat them appallingly. This is not a new argument, many have raised the same points and concerns for years, but we appear to be doing very little about it.

We are kidding ourselves if we think we have a separate system for dealing with children who commit crime, especially in relation to custody! It pains me to continue seeing, year on year, report after report, the same failings within the secure estate, and the same points made in relation to children being seen as children first in England and Wales: I just can’t see it in relation to custody- feel free to show me otherwise!

References:

House of Commons Committees (2021) Does the secure estate meet the needs of young people in custody? High levels of violence, use of force and self-harm suggest the youth secure estate is not fit for purpose [Online]. Available at: https://houseofcommons.shorthandstories.com/justice-youth-secure-estate/index.html. [Last accessed 4th April 2022].

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2021) Children in Custody 2019-2020: An analysis of 12-18-year-old’s perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.

They think it’s all over…….

https://www.northampton.ac.uk/news/covid-blog-they-think-its-all-over/

Probably the most famous quote in the history of English football was that made by Kenneth Wolstenholme at the end of the 1966 World Cup final where he stated as Geoff Hurst broke clear of the West German defence to score the 4th goal that “Some people are on the pitch…. they think it’s all over…….it is now”. I have been reminded of this quote as we reach April 1st, 2022 when all Coronavirus restrictions in England essentially come to an end. We are moving from a period of pandemic restrictions to one of “living with Covid”. Whilst the prevailing narrative has focussed on “it’s over” the national data sets would suggest it is most definitely not. We are currently experiencing another wave of infections driven by the Omicron BA-2 variant. Cases of Covid infection have been rising steadily over the past couple of weeks and we are now seeing hospital admissions and deaths rise too. This has led to an interesting tension between current politically driven and public health driven advice.

The overriding question then is why remove all restrictions now if infection rates are so high. The answer sits with science and the success of the vaccination programme, and the protection it affords, which to date has seen 86% of the eligible population have two jabs and 68% boosted with a third. Furthermore, we are now at the start of the Spring booster programme for the over 75s and the most vulnerable. The introduction of the vaccine has seen a dramatic fall in serious illness associated with infection and the UK government now believe that this is a virus we can live with and we should get on with our lives in a sensible and cautious way without the need for mandated restrictions. The advances gained in both the vaccination programme, anti-viral therapies and treatments have been enormous and underpin completely the current and future situation. So, the narrative shifts to one that emphasises learning to live with the virus and to that end the Government has provided us with guidance. The UK Government’s “Living with Covid Plan” COVID-19 Response – Living with COVID-19.docx (publishing.service.gov.uk) has four key principles at its heart:

  • Removing domestic restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours through public health advice, in common with longstanding ways of managing most other respiratory illnesses;
  • Protecting people most vulnerable to COVID-19: vaccination guided by Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice, and deploying targeted testing;
  • Maintaining resilience: ongoing surveillance, contingency planning and the ability to reintroduce key capabilities such as mass vaccination and testing in an emergency; and
  • Securing innovations and opportunities from the COVID-19 response, including investment in life sciences.

So, in addition to the restrictions already removed from 1 April, the Government will:

  • Remove the current guidance on voluntary COVID-status certification in domestic settings and no longer recommend that certain venues use the NHS COVID Pass.
  • Update guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people. This will align with the changes to testing.
  • No longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England.
  • Consolidate guidance to the public and businesses, in line with public health advice.
  • Remove the health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their risk assessments.
  • Replace the existing set of ‘Working Safely’ guidance with new public health guidance

My major concern with these changes is the massive scaling back of infection testing. In doing so we run the risk of creating a data vacuum. Being able to test and undertake scientific surveillance of the virus’s future development would help us identify any future threats from new variants; particularly those classified as being “of concern”. What we should have learned from the past two years is that the ability to understand the virus and rapidly scale up our response is critical.

What is also now abundantly clear from the current data is that this is far from over and it is going to take some time for us to adapt as a society. The ongoing consequences for the most vulnerable sections of our society are still incredibly challenging. It will not be a surprise to any health professional that the pandemic was keenest felt in communities already negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since the publication of the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980), which showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of the UK.  Indeed, there is evidence that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately located in socially deprived communities. Consequently, there is a genuine concern that the most vulnerable to the virus could be left behind in isolation as the rest of society moves on. However, we are now at a new critical moment which most will celebrate. Regardless of whether you believe the rolling back of restrictions is right or not, this moment in time allows us an opportunity to reflect on the past two years and indeed look forward to what has changed and what could happen in terms of both Coronavirus and any other future pandemic.

Looking back, I have no doubt that the last two years have changed life considerably in several  positive and negative ways. Of course, we tend to migrate to the negative first and the overall cost of life, levels of infection and the long-term consequences have been immense. The longer-term implications of Covid (Long Covid) is still something we need to take seriously and fully understand. What is not in doubt is the toll this has had on individuals, families, communities and the future burden it places on our NHS. The psychological impact of social isolation and restrictions has been enormous and especially so for our children, young people, the vulnerable and the elderly. The social and educational development of school children is of particular concern. The wider economic implications of the pandemic will take some time to recover. Yet, whilst the negative implications cause us grave concern many features of our lives have improved. Many have identified that this pandemic has helped them re-asses what is important in life, how important key workers are in ensuring society continues to operate smoothly and the critical role health and social services must play in times of health crisis. Changing perspectives on work, work life balance and alternative ways of conducting business have been embraced and many argue that the world of work will never be the same again.

On that final note it’s important that as a society we have learned from what I have previously described as the greatest public health crisis in my lifetime. Pandemic planning was shown to be woefully inadequate and we must get this better because there is no doubt there will be another pandemic of this magnitude at some point in the future. Proper support for health and social services are critical and the state of the NHS at the start of all this was telling. Yes, it rose to the challenge as it always does but health and social care systems were badly let down in the early stages of this pandemic with disastrous consequences. Proper investment in science and research is paramount, for let’s be honest it was science that came to our rescue and did so in record time. There will inevitably be a large public enquiry into all aspects of the pandemic, its management and outcomes. We can only hope that lessons have been learned and we are better prepared for both the ongoing management of this pandemic and inevitably the next one.

Dr Stephen O’Brien

FHES

Originally posted here

UCU Strike 21-25 March 2022

More information around the University and College University [UCU] and the Four Fights Dispute can be found here.

Information about the Northampton branch of UCU can be found here and here.

You can also find out why striking is a criminological issue here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2021/12/10/striking-is-a-criminological-matter/ and here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/02/18/united-nations-un-world-day-of-social-justice/

If you want to know why the Criminology Team is prepared to stand outside in the cold and rain please read here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/03/02/higher-education-the-strikes-and-me/ and here: https://thoughtsfromthecriminologyteam.blog/2022/03/09/higher-education-students-the-strikes-and-me/

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.

DIE in Solidarity with Diversity-Inclusion-Equality

As an associate lecturer on a casual contract, I was glad to stand in solidarity with my friends and colleagues also striking as part of UCU Industrial Action. Concurrently, I was also glad to stand in solidarity with students (as a recent former undergrad and masters student … I get it), students who simply want a better education, including having a curriculum that represents them (not a privileged minority). I wrote this poem for the students and staff taking part in strike action, and it comes inspired from the lip service universities give to doing equality while undermining those that actually do it (meanwhile universities refuse to put in the investment required). This piece also comes inspired by ‘This is Not a Humanising Poem’ by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a British author-educator from Bradford in Yorkshire.


Some issues force you to protest

the way oppression knocks on your front door

and you can’t block out the noise

“protest peacefully, non-violently”

I have heard people say

show ‘the undecided’, passive respectability

be quiet, leave parts of yourself at home

show them you’re just as capable of being liked

enough for promotion into the canteen,

protest with kindness and humour

make allusions to smiling resisters in literature

they’d rather passive images of Rosa Parks all honestly

but not her politics against racism, patriarchy, and misogyny

Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

but I wanna tell them about British histories of dissent

the good and the bad – 1919 Race Riots

the 1926 general strikes, and the not so quiet

interwar years of Caribbean resistance to military conscription

I wanna talk about how Pride was originally a protest

I wanna talk about the Grunwick Strike and Jayaben Desai

and the Yorkshire miners that came to London in solidarity

with South Asian migrant women in what was 1980s austerity

I want to rant about Thatcherism as the base

for the neoliberal university culture we work in today

I want to talk about the Poll Tax Riots of 1990

and the current whitewashing of the climate emergency

they want protesters to be frugal in activism,

don’t decolonise the curriculum

they say decolonise

they mean monetise, let’s diversify …

but not that sort of diversity

nothing too political, critical, intellectual

transform lives, inspire change?

But no,

they will make problems out of people who complain

it’s your fault, for not being able to concentrate

in workplaces that separate the work you do

from the effects of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo

they make you the problem

they make you want to leave

unwilling to acknowledge that universities

discriminate against staff and students systemically

POCs, working-class, international, disabled, LGBT

but let’s show the eligibility of staff networks

while senior leaders disproportionately hire TERFs

Universities are gaslighting their staff and students, enough is enough (Getty Images)

staff and students chequered with severe floggings

body maps of indenture and slavery

like hieroglyphics made of flesh

but good degrees, are not the only thing that hold meaning

workers rights, students’ rights to education

so this will not be a ‘people are human’ poem

we are beyond respectability now

however, you know universities will DIE on that hill

instead,

treat us well when we’re tired

productive, upset, frustrated

when we’re in back-to-back global crises

COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, femicide,

failing in class, time wasting, without the right visas,

the right accents; Black, white, homeless, in poverty,

women, trans, when we’re not A-Grade students, when we don’t

have the right last name; when we’re suicidal

when people are anxious, depressed, autistic

tick-box statistics within unprotected characteristics

all permeates through workers’ and student rights

When you see staff on strike now,

we’re protesting things related to jobs yes,

but also, the after-effects

as institutions always protect themselves

so sometimes I think about

when senior management vote on policies…

if there’s a difference between the nice ones ticking boxes

and the other ones that scatter white supremacy?

I wonder if it’s about diversity, inclusion, and equality [DIE],

how come they discriminate in the name of transforming lives

how come Black students are questioned (under caution) in disciplinaries

like this is the London Met maintaining law and order …

upholding canteen cultures of policing

Black and Brown bodies. Decolonisation is more

than the curriculum; Tuck and Yang

tell us decolonisation is not a metaphor,

so why is it used in meetings as lip service –

Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

why aren’t staff hired in

in critical race studies, whiteness studies, decolonial studies

why is liberation politics and anti-racism not at the heart of this

why are mediocre white men failing upwards,

they tell me we have misunderstood

but promotion based on merit doesn’t exist

bell hooks called this

imperialist heteropatriarchal white supremacy

you know Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and the rest

we must protest how we want to protest

we must never be silenced; is this being me radical, am I radical 

Cos I’m tired of being called a “millennial lefty snowflake”, when I’m just trying not to DIE?! 


Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke.

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Complaint. London: Duke.

Bhanot, Kavita (2015) Decolonise, Not Diversify. Media Diversified [online].

Double Down News (2021) This Is England: Ash Sakar’s Alternative Race Report. YouTube.

Chen, Sophia (2020) The Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Industrial Complex Gets a Makeover. Wired [online].

Puwar, Nirmal (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Read, Bridget (2021) Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying? The Cut [online].

Ventour, Tré (2021) Telling it Like it is: Decolonisation is Not Diversity. Diverse Educators [online].

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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