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Getting closer to 30 has been really difficult. I had set goals for myself and I have not accomplished most of them.
I thought I had everything all planned out and I knew what I wanted. However, life comes at you fast. I honestly wonder how our parents made this look so easy.
The pandemic has also knocked us back a couple of years. Instead of focussing on goals and thinking about the future; we are simply trying our hardest to stay sane and survive each day. Remembering to breathe became the new main task. Making our mental health a priority has become the most important thing.
Trying to balance ‘living in the moment’ and thinking about the future is hard. My plans have changed so much over the last couple of years. I have more questions than answers. But I’m slowly learning not every question has to be answered straightaway.
The pressure I feel being a first generation immigrant is enormous. I believe that every generation has to show a level of socioeconomic improvement. Finding a way to achieve this, whilst in a foreign land is extremely overwhelming. You are constantly reminded close to each day that you are an outsider and you do not belong here.
Nonetheless, my mother did not work two jobs and not have any days off for me not to make it. This has always been my driving force. My mom always tells me I am being too hard on myself. She had the support from her relatives when she was home in our home country (Zimbabwe) and I don’t have the same luxury, as such I shouldn’t penalise myself for not achieving everything I want to achieve… yet. (The key word is ‘yet’). Just because it has not happened yet doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. Delay does not mean denial.
Facing career challenges based on your race is a hard pill to swallow. Not knowing who to turn to for advice is even more frustrating. I used to think all women regardless of race would empathise and they would want to help. As we all have one struggle in common; being a woman. At least that should unify us… (so you would think). However, I have realised at times your level of ambition can be deemed as a threat. The same people might have experienced a glass ceiling can be the very same ones who add to your oppression because you are seen as ‘competition’. One of my mentors recently told me to relax in relation to my job searching as all institutions are not used to “aggressive job searches”. I find it pretty funny that the term “aggressive” will always be the main word used to describe Black people. How can a job search ever be aggressive?! Unless I’m standing outside your office threatening you to give me a job then yes, that’s aggressive. However, sending an email reminding a company to send me the new job specification they stated over the phone is not aggressive. In that moment, I knew she is an enemy of my progress.
I used to calculate my career progression based on if I have moved up to a certain level or my pay grade has increased. But I am starting to learn the skills I have acquired over the years are far more valuable. My confidence has grown incredibly. I have found my voice. That is something that cannot be taken from me. I am proud of my level of courage and perseverance. These are qualities not a lot of people have.
I am excited to see what 30 has in store for me. I have learnt so much. But there are a lot of skills I look forward to gaining in the upcoming years. I am slowly learning not to be so hard on myself.
Note to self – do not forget who you are… You are destined for greatness. Everything you want is coming. Do not compare your journey to others. Even if others are not willing to help you; there is always a way forward. Go back to the drawing board and restrategise. No one owes you anything. So do not expect anything from anyone.
“Remember diamonds are created under pressure so hold on, it will be your time to shine soon.” – Sope Agbelisi
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?
A little over a week ago our university introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks indoors. This included wearing of masks in classrooms as well as common areas and offices. Some may argue that the new rules were introduced a little too late in the day, whilst I’m sure others will point to the fact that government guidance is that the wearing of face masks is advisory and therefore the introduction of the new rules was unwarranted. Let’s be honest the government and their political party haven’t set much of an example regarding the basic safety ideas, let alone rules, as evidenced by the recent Conservative party conference. The new rules at the university, however, are not enforced, instead there is a reliance that students and staff will comply. This of course creates several dilemmas for students and staff where there is a failure to comply and it makes for some interesting observations about general human behaviour and deviance. To that extent, university life might be viewed as a microcosm of life in the general population and this lends itself quite nicely to the analogy of behaviours whilst driving on a road.
Driving behaviours vary, from those drivers that consistently and diligently stick to the speed limit despite what others may be doing, to those that have complete disregard for limits or indeed others including those that police the roads. Let us be quite clear at this stage, speed limits are nearly always there for a reason. There is ample research that speed kills and that reductions in speed limits injuries and saves life. Whilst those drivers that drive over the speed limit will not always be involved in a collision and that a collision will not always result in serious injury or death, there is a much greater potential for this. The risks of course are spread across the population in the locality, the impact is not just felt by the speeding driver but other drivers and pedestrians as well. To some extent we can make the comparison to the risks associated with catching Covid and the wearing of masks and social distancing, failure to comply increases risks to all. As a quick reminder, the wearing of masks is to protect others more so than it is to protect the individual mask wearer.
Observations of behaviours regarding staff and students wearing masks at the university are interesting. There are those that comply, regardless of what others are doing, some of these will have been wearing masks indoors before the new rules came in. Not dissimilar to the careful driver, sticking to the speed limit but also prepared to drive slower where they perceive there is a greater risk. Then there is the well-intentioned mask wearer, the one that knows the rules and will stick to them but through absent mindedness or through some of life’s many distractions, they fail to wear their masks at various points of the day. As with the well-meaning driver, they are easily reminded and often apologetic, even if it is only to themselves. Of course, there is the ‘follow the flock’ wearer, the person that could quite easily be persuaded to not wear their mask by the rest of the flock as they fail to wear theirs. The driver that joins the rest and drives at 40mph in a 30mph limit because the rest of the traffic is doing so. Next is the deviant that has disregard for the rules as long as no one in authority is looking. The person that keeps their mask handy, probably under their chin and then when challenged in some way, perhaps by a disapproving look from a member of staff or by a direct challenge, puts their mask on but only for the duration they are under observation. Not dissimilar to the speedster that slows down when they see a police vehicle or a static speed camera only to speed up again when the danger of being caught and sanctioned has passed. Finally, there is the person that has complete disregard for any rules, they will blatantly fail to wear a mask and wave away with complete disdain any attempt by student ambassadors positioned at the door to offer them a mask. They like the speeding driver that fails to obey any of the rules of the road have complete disregard for the rules or indeed any rules.
Whilst we may lament the fact that some people forget, are distracted but are generally well meaning, we probably wouldn’t want to impose any sanction for their deviance. But what of those that have complete disregard for the rules? It is worth returning here to the general ethos of wearing masks; to protect others. The disregard for the rules is inter alia a disregard for the safety of others. Whilst we might observe that the deviancy is apparent amongst several students (a problem that might be generalised to society), it is somewhat disconcerting that there are a significant number of staff who clearly do not think the rules apply to them. They seem to neither care about their colleagues nor the students and it would seem consider themselves above the rules. Another comparable trait in general society where those in positions of power seem to have a disregard for rules and others. Finally, we might consider how we could police these new rules as clearly our university society of students and staff are unable to do so. I can hear the cries now, haven’t you got anything better to do, this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and all the usual rhetoric endured by the police across the land. If you make a rule, you must be prepared to enforce it otherwise there’s no point in having it. Imposing an unenforceable rule is simply playing politics and attempting to appease those that question the conditions in which students and staff work. Imagine speed limits on the road but no enforcement cameras, no police and no sanctions for breaches. It will be interesting to see how long the general population at the university follow the new rules, recent observations are that the flock of sheep mentality is starting to come to the fore. As a parting thought, isn’t it amazing how easy it is to study crime and deviance.
Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report. Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic. The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.
In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage. At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated. We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners. Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue. Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas.
The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not. In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison. They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail. This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom. This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes. For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality. In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society. The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison. This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some. Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system.
This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education. We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right. Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle. From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate. Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s. People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie.
The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change. The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances. Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process. For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.
The final criminological issue is the prison itself. What do we want people to do in them? If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released. When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult. People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”. This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality. A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation. The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly. This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet. If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary. Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions. This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does. The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change.
Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice. This is perhaps a different topic of conversation. At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.
Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison
Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Review, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review
Originally published here