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Sometimes it is very hard to find the words
This week our learning community lost one of our members; Kwabena Osei-Poku (known to his nearest and dearest as Alfred) who was killed on Sunday 23 April 2023. At such times, it is very difficult to find the right words, but to say nothing, would do a grave disservice.
The Thoughts from the Criminology Team would like to express our deepest condolences to the family, friends, and communities for whom Kwabena Osei-Poku (Alfred) was such an important person. We wish you time, space and peace to come together to mourn your terrible loss.
The silenced hybrid voices in lecturing teams
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.
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.
Auschwitz – secrets of the ground
Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always a friend to the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victimElie Wiesel
I have been fortunate enough in my life to have been able to live and travel abroad, a luxury you should never take for granted. Having traveled in every continent there are plenty of things I will never forget, mostly good but one thing that will stay with me will be Auschwitz. It is hard to get excited about visiting Auschwitz, but it is also hard to not get excited about visiting Auschwitz. The day I visited Auschwitz, on the journey there a flurry of strange thoughts went through my head, perhaps ones you would only have when attending a funeral where you are supposed to be in grief. What do you wear, should I smile, what do you talk about, essentially you are creating a rule book inside your head of how not to be offensive. It’s a strange thought process and perhaps completely irrational, one of which I will probably never go through again. If I had to describe Auschwitz in one word, that word would be haunting and I could write for hours about Auschwitz without ever being able to get across the feeling of visiting it, but instead, I am going to share with you a poem I wrote on the journey back from Auschwitz, this poem has never seen the light of day and has been in my diary for over a decade, until now, but it feels like a perfect time to finally share, it’s called secrets of the ground.
Dark skies and tearful eyes,
only God knows the secrets this ground hides.
The flowers mask the crimes of old,
the walls are chipped by bullet holes.
Haunting sounds drowned out by hymns,
the shoes of children too scared to blink.
A cold wind howls in these Polish fields,
one million people how can this be real.
A train stands alone on the blackened track,
barb wire fences to hold them back.
The secrets out, the grounds have spoken,
we must never forget the lives that were taken.