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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?
Hello everyone. My name is Tré and I will be one of the student success mentors [SSMs] starting from December 2021. Some of the now third-year criminology students reading this may remember me from when I attended some sessions within my role as a student union sabbatical officer (2019-2020) in their first year. However, as an SSM, I have previously been in some of the same situations many students have as I was also a student at the university (2016-2019).
The BTEC / A-Level-to-University pipeline can be challenging, but not impossible to navigate while the transition from school to university, is a social and cultural change that takes getting used to. Particularly the codes of acting and being so ingrained in university learning and working cultures.
I did my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at Northampton. But I did my postgraduate degree in a completely different area of study — reading Race, Education, and Decolonial Thought within Leeds Beckett’s Centre for Race, Education, and Decoloniality. My academic interests are in race and social inequalities (but I previously used creative writing to discuss it), with my undergraduate dissertation being Permission to Speak: On Race, Identity, and Belonging. Furthermore, lots of my experience comes from the many talks I have done on Black history and race (including whiteness), further to the social investments I have in the local Northampton community where I grew up. Most recently, I am co-leading a Windrush project with a charity called NorFAMtoN built off an earlier largely Black community-led response to inequalities exasperated from issue relating to the COVID-19 pandemic (a project that is ongoing).
In 2018, I started using my knowledge on race to help organisations and that started with a theatre company called Now and Then Theatre where I was consultant on their play about Walter Tull. This took place in Buckingham and Northants. I became a student union sabbatical officer for Global Majority students in June 2019 where more questions about race occured. Leaving that role in July 2020, the overlap with the murder of George Floyd also saw more questions. And though I had done this sort of work prior to that summer, this time saw me and many of my colleagues being asked to do things where I have been freelancing as a race and Black history educator more consistently since September 2020.
Yet, I fell into criminology (as a sabbatical officer) when criminology programme leads @manosdaskalou and @paulaabowles contacted me to discuss my SU role, possibly in the July or August 2019. Unknown to me then, lots of the work I had done in the community including the types of poetry events I did (could be considered criminological). Over my year in the student union, I did think a lot about what my life would have been like had I done a creative writing-criminology joint honours degree rather than single honours creative writing. Anyhow, enough of whatifs. My life with the team since meeting Paula and Manos has not been the same, as they and Stephanie (@svr2727) convinced to go for my MA.
I didn’t study criminology in a formal capacity, but in terms of understanding crime — race and thus whiteness certainly have roles (which is my area). Criminology via many conversations with the team, pertinently interacting with Paula’s module on violence (and engaging with these students when I was sabb), showed me a context for my institutional experiences at university and elsewhere. Criminology simply added more layers to my understandings of the world. As an artist, I find criminology to be multidisciplinary informing some of my poetry as what happened when I went to Onley Prison in February 2020 showing criminology’s relevance in life beyond theory (as valuable as theory is).
As an artist, I try to approach as much as possible with an open-mind. Yet, as an academic as well, I also try my best to think how the issues we teach also have a human cost. For example, we must not only talk about violence as a purely academic matter. The decisions we make can have consequences. So, here then in your study time, I encourage you to think about the human cost of research (as there is both good and bad). Remember, there is no such thing as ‘being objective’ (there’s always a perspective or an agenda … see what I did there?). Debate with your lecturers, but more importantly debate with each other.
As an SSM, my role is about helping all students. Those that are just starting and also students that have been here for a while. I am here to help students that study at Northampton, including those who came straight from school all the way to those that came to university after a working career before going back to study. However, as an associate lecturer, I’m here specifically for criminology students.
My name is Tré and will be back at the university on a part-time basis starting from December 2021, and I look forward to meeting you all very soon! 😀
More on me here – https://linktr.ee/treventoured