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Just some more meaningless populism…

Photograph by Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock in The Guardian

As we follow the recent American-style media circus posing as the Conservative Party leadership contest set to determine the interim Prime Minister until the next General Election, we are reminded that both ‘finalists’, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are pretty much showing us their real faces fairly early in the show, while they pander to their own, in a frenzy to be seen as the modern-day version of Thatcher. Truss’ emulation of the ‘Iron Lady’ through evident vocal coaching to sound more ‘masculine’ and ‘assertive’ has helped her come across even more awkward and inept than before; perhaps the ‘Wooden Spoon’ may be a more appropriate title. Nevertheless, with promises to cut taxes…despite having announced 15 tax rises in just over 2 years…‘restore trust’ in politics…despite having been directly complicit in keeping the outgoing clown Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) in power for so long given his track record for lying…and continue with an illegal migration policy that will see refugees and asylum seekers deported to Rwanda, we are reminded that it is not the British public that will get a say in who will represent our country on the global stage, but a comparatively handful of Conservative Party members.

Lest we forget that the Conservative Party membership is dominated by middle-aged white men, many with nationalist and strongly-held religious views, seeking to preserve traditions that go back (sometimes) centuries. It seems inevitable then that the next leader will not be a racially minoritised candidate, despite being the elite private-school multi-millionaire type that Conservative voters have grown to love since the 2010’s, paving the way for Liz Truss to put her very important ideas surrounding growing British apples and setting up pork markets in Bejing to the forefront of the current populist political model we have unfortunately allowed to flourish in the UK. Truss may find meeting the Queen during her term as quite awkward given her openly anti-monarchist history. She also seems, despite having voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Referendum, to have jumped on the bigoted Brexit bandwagon that is slowly eroding the last remaining remnants of democracy in this country. We know that every crumb of functioning public sector life has been crushed over the past 12 years:

…and there are many other examples. Without getting into yet another Brexit debate, there is no doubt that the very act of voting to leave the EU in 2016, and its subsequent consequences, has had a long-lasting impact in these services, one which we cannot hope to treat for many years. Let us not be in any illusion that either of these candidates will swoop in and majestically heal the UK from the deep wounds this Party has inflicted for 12 years, nor that there will be some miraculous light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny. Perhaps this is a rather pessimistic outlook on the years leading up to the next General Election, but unless in the unlikely event the soon-to-be PM decides to call a snap election to allow the public to finally boot out the last of this government and pave the way to some change, the situation seems rather hopeless…at least for the time being.

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.

Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines

Another week has flown by, where has the time gone?  Every day I diligently fill out a time sheet, every week I work over my contracted hours and at the end of every week I reflect on the things that have not been done, thinking well when I get time, I’ll have a look at that. 

In conversations around the university, I hear students complaining about the current industrial action, one such conversation suggested it was disgusting that lecturers had been on strike.  Another overheard student conversation thought it was disgusting that students didn’t turn up for lectures and if they were the lecturer they wouldn’t allow them back in class, after all don’t they know how long it must have taken that lecturer to prepare for the class.  Juxtapose this with a workload model that only allows an hour for preparation and marking for every hour spent in the classroom and we have an interesting mosaic of what can only be described as blissful ignorance of what a lecturer’s job entails.

Now I can’t talk about other subject areas but I’m sure that many of the lecturers in those areas will have the same issues that we have in criminology or that I have regarding what we do.   There are some subjects within the criminology discipline that are pretty much the staple diet and as such don’t really change much, after all Bentham’s ideas for instance were formed a couple of centuries ago and teaching a class about Bentham’s ideas won’t really change much over time. That is of course until someone, probably far brighter than me, discovers something about Bentham or produces a different take on Bentham’s writings.  But generally, I suppose I might be inclined to suggest that preparation time for a lecture and seminar around the topic of Bentham’s ideas would not be too lengthy.  But then what is too lengthy? How long would it take to prepare a lecture and a seminar task? That would depend on how much research was required, how many books and papers were read and probably importantly, well it is for me, how prepared the lecturer wants to be for the session.  Do we as lecturers prepare for the lowest common denominator, the student that rarely reads anything and perhaps hardly turns up or do we prepare for the student that is an avid reader and will have read more than what they can find on Wikipedia. How long is a piece of string when it comes to preparation time.

Those of you that might have read my first blog about the industrial action will recall how I described that having been signed off ill with work related stress, I was told that I was burnt out. One of the questions in conversation was whether I ever turned off, the answer of course was no. And it is still difficult to do that, Criminology is one of those disciplines that is all consuming. I watch the news, or I read about something, and I immediately think of criminological aspects.  I must admit most of the time I have the Metropolitan Police to thank for that.  There doesn’t seem to be much delineation, certainly in terms of cerebral activity, between being at work and being off.  I want to make my lectures, seminars or workshops (call them what you will) interesting and current.  By exploring current issues in society, I end up researching both the current and historic, I end up making links between reality and theory and I produce what I hope is thought provoking and interesting subject matter for consumption in class. I have recently prepared a workshop which required me to read two IPCC reports and a three hundred word plus transcript of a civil case, all highly relevant to the topic of failed investigations.  The civil case took me to 10 other stated cases.  I can’t tell you exactly how long it took me, but it was longer than a day.  Most of it in my own time because the topic is of interest to me.  Lecturing, the acquisition of knowledge and at times the production of knowledge takes time, often the lines are blurred as to whose time is being used.  My seeds of ideas and basic research are often in my time not my employer’s time.  To have students turn up unprepared for my workshops, to turn up late (frequently) to fail to engage and then to have the gall to bemoan industrial action is soul destroying.  To have a workload model that allows a pitiful time for preparation of lectures is simply ignorance and quite frankly, crass.  We are in higher education not a sausage factory. 

It is easy then, to see on reflection, where my time has gone each week.  Given the work entailed in lecturing and the myriad of other requirements, it is hardly a surprise that there is a successful mandate for continued industrial action.  I’m working more hours than is stated in my contract, cheating a bit on ASOS because it feels impossible not to, and I still can’t get anywhere near to fulfilling my workload.  When I fill out my time sheet, I don’t include all of my own time as I’ve described above.

I won’t stop formulating my ideas. I wont stop using my own time to further my knowledge so that I can pass it on to students that are interested.  But I would like some acknowledgement that the current system employed for gauging my workload is out of kilter with reality.  And for those students that put the effort in and by doing so make my classes enjoyable, I am extremely grateful. As for the rest, well I suppose ignorance is bliss.

Meet the Team: Helen Trinder, Associate Lecturer in Criminology

My Academic Journey

Two weeks ago, I attended a university reunion. My cohort are now in our late 40s or early 50s but it is remarkable how little we had all changed. Being back in the place where we all studied together put me in reflective mood and that (combined with some timely prompting from Paula) inspired me to share my academic journey.

I was one of those annoying kids who did well at school and knew exactly what they wanted to do. As a small child, I wanted to be a nurse but I later developed an aversion to bodily fluids which made that career choice untenable. I briefly flirted with the idea of being an English teacher, but both of my parents were in education and strenuously tried to dissuade me. So, at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a prison psychologist. I was in a careers lesson at school, and we had a big green plastic box filled with cards on which were written descriptions of different jobs. I announced that I wanted to be a psychiatrist (I think I was just being provocative) but I couldn’t find “psychiatrist” in the box, so I picked the closest one that I could find: “psychologist”. I read the card and it sounded really interesting, so I decided to find out more about psychology. The more I read, the more interesting I found it, and when I looked into the sorts of settings where I could work as a psychologist, prisons called out to me.

I was very lucky to secure a place to read Experimental Psychology at University College, Oxford in 1990. People have an image of ancient universities as being elitist, but what struck me was the huge diversity of people who were there. They were all clever and had studied hard to achieve their places, but beyond that they came from an enormous range of backgrounds – a far greater variety than I had encountered in my Shropshire comprehensive school. Our tutors worked us extremely hard. We had weekly tutorials, either in pairs or one-to-one, in two modules every term and we had to prepare an essay for each tutorial (two essays a week). In tutorials, we read out, discussed and analysed our essays and the reading on which they were based. There were lectures and practical classes on top of that and we had exams at the beginning of each term to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything over the vacations! That’s why I’m sometimes not very sympathetic to students who struggle to read one paper in preparation for a seminar!

At the end of my undergraduate studies, I still wanted to work in prisons but I knew very little about them. My degree had given me an excellent grounding in psychology but I knew little about the study of crime. So I applied to do an M.Phil. at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. This gave me an extra year as a full-time student and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I was privileged to be taught by such eminent criminologists as Loraine Gelsthorpe, Alison Liebling and David Farrington. I particularly enjoyed the penology seminars with Nigel West, which I attended just out of interest – I wasn’t taking the assessment in that module! The assessments were all coursework (extended essays and a dissertation) and had to be submitted at the start of each term, so I studied hard in the vacations, and I attended my seminars in term time, but there was also plenty of time for sport and socialising and making the most of my last year as a student!

At that time, HM Prison Service recruited new psychologists once a year through a national assessment centre. I applied in 1994, just after I had submitted my M.Phil. dissertation but I was unsuccessful. I got a job instead at the University of Wales, Swansea, as a research assistant in the Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Studies. I was involved in an evaluation of drug and alcohol treatment centres, funded by the Welsh Office, which employed both quantitative measures and participant observation. When that contract ended, I obtained another contract with Swansea City Council to compile a community profile of a “problem” estate. This required knocking on doors to interview residents, and participant observation in community settings such as the youth club, old people’s bingo sessions and the local pub. It was considered a rather intimidating environment to drop a well-educated 24-year-old English girl into, but I found the residents to be remarkably warm and welcoming and it was a highly rewarding piece of work.

By the time I finished the community profile, I had re-applied to the Prison Service and passed the assessment centre – the interpersonal skills I had developed through my action research had served me well. I had, however, joined the Prison Service at an unfortunate time. There was a recruitment ban in force which meant that although I had passed the psychologist assessment centre, I couldn’t actually secure a job. I was eventually given a temporary contract to collect data at HMP Littlehey for a large-scale research project analysing effective prison regimes.  After 10 months of doing this, the recruitment ban was lifted and I was taken on as a prison psychologist, sharing my time between HMP Littlehey and HMP Wellingborough. The Prison Service used to fund a part-time M.Sc. at Birkbeck University, which all newly recruited psychologists undertook. Obtaining a suitably accredited M.Sc., along with completing a satisfactory period of supervised practice, is an essential requirement of becoming a fully qualified “Chartered” psychologist. In another piece of unfortunate timing, the Birkbeck M.Sc. ceased to run just as I joined the service. At first, there was nothing to take its place. However, other universities soon noticed the gap in the market. I, and others in my prison psychology cohort, were relieved when the University of Leicester set up an M.Sc. in Forensic and Legal Psychology by Distance Learning. The Prison Service agreed to pay my fees and my manager allowed a small amount of study leave when assignments were due. Completing a post-graduate degree while working full-time in a demanding job was hard work and I vowed I would never do it again!

I moved to HMP Woodhill in 1998, completed my M.Sc. in 1999 and became a Chartered Psychologist in 2001. At some point after that, I remember receiving a phone call at work from someone called “@manosdaskalou” at, what was then, University College Northampton! I don’t know where he got my number from, but he wanted someone to talk to his third year Forensic Psychology students about the work that psychologists do in prisons. My parents had not completely succeeded in knocking a desire to teach out of me (in fact I probably inherited my urge to educate from them), and my Dad had taught at Northampton when it was Nene College, so I was keen to fulfil the request. The talk became a regular fixture and, after a few years (by which time I was Head of Psychology at HMP Woodhill), we extended it from a single guest lecture to a series of four, to allow me to cover topics such as risk assessment and offending behaviour interventions in more detail.

My son was born in 2008 and I took 12 months maternity leave from the Prison Service. At the end of that time, I didn’t feel ready to go back, so I negotiated a further 12 months career break. I wasn’t ready to return to the full intensity of managing a team in a high security prison, but I did want to keep my brain active. I asked Manos if there were any opportunities to expand my teaching commitments. The University was in the process of setting up a foundation degree in Offender Management, which was aimed primarily at custodial officers at HMP Rye Hill but was also delivered to a small cohort of full-time students. They were short of lecturers to deliver the modules and my offer to help out was eagerly accepted. The terms of my career break meant that I couldn’t earn money from another employer, but a couple of hours a week teaching suited me very well, so I gave my services for free and taught a module on Professional Practice alongside a lecturer with a background in probation, from another university, called Keith Davies.

After a year of this arrangement, HMP Woodhill were unwilling to have me back part-time, so I resigned from the Prison Service and joined the Parole Board as a part-time psychologist member. This allowed me to work much more flexibly and, with a toddler in the family, it suited me well. It also meant that I could have a proper contract with the University of Northampton and I became an associate lecturer in September 2010. Keith had moved to a different job but I continued to teach Professional Practice on the Offender Management degree. There was also a module in Offender Management on “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour”. The person who taught this left after a couple of years and I took it over. Returning to basic psychology and teaching it every week was daunting at first, but I really enjoyed going back to what I had learned as an undergraduate and re-discovering how relevant it was to real-life criminal justice.

The arrangement with HMP Rye Hill had never really taken off and the Offender Management degree only ever attracted small numbers of full-time students, so in 2014 the course closed. Manos was keen, however, to incorporate more psychology into the B.A. Criminology course, so we adapted “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour” into a first-year criminology module and I’ve been teaching it ever since! I’ve also taught a module on violence and I’ve covered maternity leave and sickness absence in other modules too. My students will have heard me banging on about forensic psychologists being “scientist-practitioners” and I feel that teaching at the University of Northampton has allowed me to fulfil this role. As a practitioner, I have lots of interesting real-life examples to use to illustrate points to my students, but teaching also keeps me up-to-date with research and theory which I can use to inform my practice.

My academic journey continues to take me to new places. My position on the Parole Board was a public appointment with a fixed tenure that came to an end in September 2020. I decided at that point to start a part-time Ph.D. with the University of Birmingham. I had not wanted to go into research straight from my M.Phil. because I felt that, in order to understand people who committed offences, I really needed some direct experience of working with them, but after 24 years as a practitioner, the time seemed right. I am now 18 months into a 6-year part-time degree. I am exploring the role of empathy deficits in violent and sexual offending. Trying to undertake research (which ideally requires access to prisoners) has not been easy during a pandemic and I have faced a number of obstacles but nothing insurmountable yet.

I am still keen to maintain a scientist-practitioner balance, and I need to pay my university fees and make a contribution to the family income, so in February of last year I started working as a Forensic Psychologist at St Andrew’s hospital. I am primarily based on a medium-secure ward for men with learning disabilities. Forensic mental health is a new area of practice for me and, although I have plenty of transferable skills from my previous roles, I have had to adapt to a different approach to the people we work with and a completely new set of jargon.

Reflecting on my academic journey, it is the people that stand out. I think that the most profound learning has taken place when I have been able to engage with experts who have shared their enthusiasm. In this respect, my undergraduate tutorials and M.Phil. seminars contrast with my distance learning M.Sc., which was a means of obtaining a qualification rather than an immersive learning experience. I hope that, as a practitioner who also teaches, I have been able to share some of my enthusiasm for forensic psychology with my own students. In order to benefit from this, however, students need to take up the opportunity to engage fully with teaching and not just see their university experience as a means to a qualification. Of course, COVID has not helped this, and the university’s penchant for remote learning placed it in a good position to maintain teaching when the pandemic struck. But it is very difficult to engage students when they are just names on a screen. I hope that, as we return to more face-to-face teaching, I can once again inspire my students, not just to pass their exams but to develop a life-long fascination for understanding criminal behaviour and the people that perpetrate it.

Helen Trinder, M.A., M.Phil., M.Sc., C.Psychol.

Forensic Psychologist and Associate Lecturer

The strikes and me: never going back!

I woke up this morning, at 4am to be precise, with a jumble of thoughts going through my mind.  In my bleary eyed, docile state I wondered whether the cats’ body clocks had gone awry, and they thought it was breakfast time (I don’t need an alarm clock) or whether it was an age thing and I shouldn’t have had that cup of tea at 10 o’clock last night (I hate getting old), but no, it’s strike day again and it weighs heavy on my mind.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not wavering, far from it, but I do reflect on the impact, and it bothers me, and I know it bothers my colleagues. It bothers me that the students are caught up in this and I have been at pains to explain to my classes why we are on strike and to try to mitigate some of the impact, but I know I cannot mitigate all of it.  The business we are in is education and that education relies on lecturers, surprisingly enough, take away the lecturers and there is no education.  I know that every day I’m on strike, there are topics that I’m not covering in class and there is no one else to cover them; no I’m not irreplaceable but I do add real value.

I struggle with the concept of ASOS and once again I am not alone. ASOS has meant that things are just not getting done, even though I’m still working at least a couple of hours a week over my contracted hours.  Not strictly ASOS I know, but it’s difficult to stick to the rules when doing so would cause everything to grind to a halt. I still have to do my teaching and marking and second marking and look at draft dissertations and have meetings with dissertation students and spend what seems like an interminable amount of time on emails (which by diktat have to be answered in two days).  I still have to prepare for my classes as I’m not a performing seal and do have to think about it before hand.  I still have to communicate with my colleagues and with the less experienced provide a guiding hand and I’m sure there are a myriad of other things I do that I haven’t mentioned. 

But I have not wavered and nor will I.  When I hear management talking about the cost of fuel going up, the state of the sector’s finances, the value of student fees compared to a few years ago, woe is me, when I see how management can treat their workers (P&O Ferries comes to mind alongside some of the other horror stories affecting both higher and further education), it simply reminds me of two things; they are out of touch and they don’t care. Insulated from the real world, their response to our very real concerns about workloads and our ever-diminishing pay, is that they’ll look into it.  Looking into it isn’t doing anything about it. Looking into it doesn’t fix my workload and, in the meantime, I’m still dealing with the aftermath of new IT systems that don’t work properly and cause significant extra work (maybe someone should have looked into that before foisting it upon the unsuspecting student and lecturer body).  I knew there was something I’d left out in the above paragraph.

One thing ASOS has taught me, there is too much to do nearly every week. I look at the things that are not done and I lament when I see that it has impacted on students.  My PDR means nothing if I haven’t the time to achieve the objectives, the mandatory training (so important that’s it’s done by eLearning; that’s another story), sits waiting to be done when I have time; and I’m constantly playing catchup.  I work in a system that thrives on making me feel guilty for not achieving. My reality though is so far removed from the workload plan that the plan has no meaning, other than to serve as a tool to beat me up with.

I am angry.  I am angry that I have been forced to go on strike. I am angry about the way that I have been treated in the past and I am angry that there has been little progress made.  I am angry about the impact that all of this is having on my students.  ASOS though has taught me one thing, there is such a thing as work/life balance and when the strikes are over, I am never going back to working the way I did before.  I have a contract and I’m sticking to it. None of this is my fault, I didn’t invent this system and I’m not the one out of touch with reality. I’m not wavering in my resolve, regardless of any future ballot, the principles of ASOS are here to stay.

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?

Complaint! (For Sara Ahmed)

This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.


As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery

it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …

yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.

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