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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:
- Students have seen their EMA’s and grants scrapped, and their university tuition fees trebled;
- Teachers across most education institutions are in both a pay and retention crisis;
- The National Health Service is in much the same critical position with a massive shortage of GP’s, doctors and nurses and record-level waits for hospital treatments;
- The social care sector has been decimated leaving the elderly and vulnerable both financially and physically worse off;
- Those with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged by so-called ‘welfare reforms’ which introduced a Universal Credit benefit merger;
- Cuts to legal sectors and legal aid has left the poorest in society unable to afford high-quality legal advice and representation in court;
- Children have seen their benefits cut and, with a sharply rising inflation rate and a looming recession by the end of this year, the use of food banks among the poorest families has been higher than ever recorded…
…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.
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.
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?
This year’s refugee week begins today, 14th June 2021 with the theme ‘we cannot walk alone’. The aim is to encourage all of us to reach out and help someone new. This week is close to my heart as border criminology is one of my key research interests. I am strongly committed to impactful research, activism and contributing my time and resources to helping refugees and making those fleeing persecution feel welcome in the UK’s hostile environment. As the resident border criminologist, I want to introduce Refugee Week activities at the University of Northampton but also to suggest how we can help ensure nobody walks alone.
The University of Northampton is hosting a week of talks in conjunction with Northampton Town of Sanctuary. Beginning on Monday at 2pm we welcome Gulwali Passarlay who fled Afghanistan at the age of 12, travelling alone through 8 countries to the UK where he was eventually granted asylum. Having spent the last few years interviewing, supporting and advocating for refugees I have heard many stories of survival. No two have been the same but each shares such painful paths that I cannot imagine. Each time I hear a refugee speak about the situations they fled I feel humbled, and grateful that despite its array of flaws, the UK is safe. In our Outsiders module, students were recently asked to challenge assumptions of minority groups. Hearing the stories of refugees from the mouths of refugees is enough to shatter any assumptions, rhetoric and media narratives about those fleeing persecution so for those who have undertaken or will sit the module next year this is a must!
On Tuesday 15th June at 2pm there will be an introduction and update to the City of Sanctuary movement. Being a City (or Town) of Sanctuary means committing to becoming a place which welcomes those seeking safety. The movement extends to universities, many of which offer Sanctuary Scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees. The Northampton Town of Sanctuary movement wants the University of Northampton to become a University of Sanctuary. Dependents of asylum applicants who arrive in the UK as children, go to school and college here, make friends, speak English, and have GCSEs and A-levels, are then unable to continue in their education as they would be liable to pay international student fees. Asylum seekers currently receive £39.63 per week from the government and are prohibited from seeking employment. They are not entitled to student finance. They are at the end of the road, forced to sit quietly and wait for the letter to come through their door with a decision.
In my own research, many of the asylum seekers I interviewed had been in the asylum process for years. For those who arrived as children and attended school here, once they left college and all their friends were going to university, they were left behind with nothing to do. This had enormous impact on their mental health and their sense of identity. They hid their asylum-seeking identity from their friends in fear of judgement, creating false narratives about who they were. This was often due to past experience of xenophobic abuse after disclosing their immigration status at school. Upon leaving school they would further advance these false narratives, making up stories about why they were not working or going to university. Just one of the people I interviewed managed to secure a Sanctuary Scholarship, despite many of them submitting applications. Having seen the impacts of exclusion from higher education, I want to see every university being a University of Sanctuary, but let’s start with the University of Northampton.
The third talk of the week is delivered by Emma Harrison from IMIX, an organisation which delivers valuable work in changing the conversation around migration and refugees. We’ve all seen the headlines and media reports of ‘illegal immigrants’ (the term ‘illegal immigrant’ infuriates me but that’s another future blog). We’ve heard Priti Patel’s plans to overhaul the ‘broken’ immigration system. The plans include further criminalisation of people seeking safety, avoiding death, rape, persecution, war; and extreme sentencing rules for those who help them reach a place of safety. The media and political rhetoric are relentless and a change in the conversation is desperately needed. I often feel hopeless about my work, that the work of myself and other border criminologists falls on deaf ears. I was at a conference a few weeks ago where the keynote was discussing the abolition of immigration detention. Immigration detention is pointless and harmful and research outputs have been good at pointing out the harms but perhaps we need to tell them what they want to hear: immigration detention is a pointless waste of money. I am looking forward to listening and hope I can pick up some tips to alter the way I communicate findings to different audiences. This talk is on Wednesday 16th June at 2pm.
The final talk of the week is delivered by a representative from the British Red Cross on Friday 18th June at 11am. The British Red Cross do a range of invaluable work from practical support such as supplying clothing and food, to finding missing family members of people seeking sanctuary. The talk will be focussed on the work the organisation does in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire during the pandemic. One of the first things I intend to do when I move to Northampton is to familiarise myself with the local service provision for refugees and asylum seekers and get involved so for me this will be a good place to start.
I encourage all our students to attend at least one of these events. They are all virtual so you could even listen while you sunbathe in the park. To attend, please email Nick who will forward a link. For our students who are interested in supporting refugees, we have a Student Action for Refugees branch at the university who coordinate student efforts to help refugees. There are many other ways we can all contribute to making sure people do not ‘walk alone’. We can read books such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains or The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, or watch one of the films free on the British Film Institute’s Refugee Week event. We can have conversations with others and try to think about what refugees might be going through. Next time you see a news report about a conflict talk about what you would do in that situation, what belongings you would take, which of your family would you leave behind? Having conversations such as these helps to build empathy and compassion. We can go further to challenge racist and xenophobic assumptions. I often ask, ‘what is your fear?’ to which I can invariably rationally explain why whatever they disclose will not materialise. Do one, all or some of these things. But I implore you to do SOMETHING to contribute not only to Refugee Week but to making the UK a more welcoming place.