Monthly Archives: May 2016

Thanks from the picket line and the sofa

It’s day two of the UCU strike for fair pay in HE. I’m at home sitting on my sofa feeling a little lost. Truth be told, I’m worrying about work. I’m worrying about the pieces of assessment I haven’t yet marked, the meetings I haven’t organised, those I haven’t prepared for and whether I really have the time to go to an training course that is useful for me rather than the institution more widely tomorrow afternoon. I worry about my to do list, or rather I worry about looking at it because I know it will be overwhelming and already scarily out of date. I am resisting the urge to open my email and start dealing with stuff because this is what I am talking about, feeling like this, under constant pressure is part of the problem. So for today I will keep feeling a little lost, I will keep fighting the urge to deal with stuff and firefight and keep the balls in the air.

Yesterday I spent the morning on the picket line. It was slightly disappointing to see some academic colleagues heading into work and some of the driving  by staff was a bit aggressive as people did their best to avoid eye contact as they drove up to the barriers and hastily waved their staff cards at the sensors. If you’re an academic and the picket line makes you uncomfortable, maybe you need to think about why. If you’re not an academic and therefore not part of this strike action, stop and show us a bit of support; Smile, say hi or wave or something. Thanks to those who did! Thank you thank you thank you to the guys driving a university van who turned around and didn’t cross the picket line – you’re awesome.

I spent a lot of time yesterday and this morning keeping an eye on twitter – thanks for the support shown there. Thanks to the students in particular for tweeting your support and for understanding that we are doing this for you as much as for ourselves. But what happens tomorrow when we all got back to work? The temptation is to try and cram the last two days worth of work plus tomorrow’s work into tomorrow. The temptation is to still try and meet those deadline, get those exams marked, those meetings sorted, that paperwork done. My instinct is to do that because it needs doing. Let’s be honest, it needed doing last week, last month… But that can’t be how this plays out. The strike cannot result in us all being more stressed out. If I give into that temptation then basically I’ve just not been paid for two days but I still do the work and the university just gets even more of me for free.

Tomorrow I will make a huge effort to work at a sensible pace, starting at a sensible time and finishing at a sensible time. I will not work all weekend to catch up. The strike is supposed to have an impact, that’s the point of a strike! I do wonder whether sometimes we let ourselves down by going back to work and trying to catch up – if we do that we negate the effect of the strike.

I’m struggling- partly self-preservation is kicking in and I want to work to make sure I can keep afloat. I don’t want the ‘well if you hadn’t been on strike you’d not be so behind…’ conversations. I don’t want to be behind… So I’m getting off the sofa and I will find something to do to distract myself from the possibility of work. Maybe I’ll make jam.

Why Strike?

I haven’t blogged for a while, well not on this site anyway. Truth is, I have lots to say about being an academic, legal education, the state of HE… but I’m feeling a bit ground down, a bit ‘what’s the point?’ and a bit weary from being battered with wave after wave of neoliberal and/or just plain idiotic requirements, requests and demands. Going into work  to be patronised at some level on a daily basis is getting a bit old. Whether it’s the mansplaining some older male colleagues seem to feel entitled to, whether it’s the string of meaningless emails which put the cart before the horse (or forget the horse altogether), whether its questions that show that the person asking hasn’t a clue what I do or whether it’s a play on my inexperience as a manager (that too is getting old, I’ve been doing the job for 2 years) or whether it is a meddling clueless government peddling an agenda that might well ruin what is left of HE- it is all just a bit tiring.

I should be fighting back – on all sorts of fronts. At discipline level, at faculty level, at institutional level and at national and international levels. I should, along with my academic, admin and student colleagues, be fighting for higher education that is meaningful and puts learning in all its various forms at the heart of everything. Instead I’m just a bit tired – and I don’t think I am the only one. I nearly lost my temper with a student who popped in to say hi and as he left  chirped ‘enjoy your summer off…’ What? That myth still exists? Wow. You see, one of the reasons I, along with many academic colleagues, am tired is because the academic year is relentless and the demands placed on us are unreasonable. Universities are now about making money and one way to do that is to do more with less – which is what academics have been asked to do for years.

I am still in the middle of marking. According to a workload allocation model we use I have roughly 40 minutes per student per module – if the module has two pieces of assessment I have 20 minutes to read, mark and provide written feedback on a piece of coursework or an examination script – actually less because I also need to fill in a couple of forms at the end. But not only that, I also have a total of about 100 to look at (and this is a very very light load because I’m Head of School) and the usual turnaround time is 2 weeks. Once the marking is done,there’ll be more marking – this time as external examiner for other institutions,then there are assessment committees and exam board all with pre-meetings and paperwork, then June is pretty much over, but not before an Open Day. Often I get to take a breath in early July but we have our Academic Portfolio Review in July and then there are re-sits, more marking and more assessment committees and exam board. There’s also LLM thesis supervision, PhD supervision and then A-Level results and Clearing. Now we are at the end of August and there are emails requesting all sorts of documentation (relating to the next academic year) which is already late because I haven’t had time to even think about it until now. So now we are about 3 weeks away from induction and I haven’t yet given a thought to any teaching I might need to do, never mind my own research. Induction week, 12 weeks of teaching with (thank goodness) a reading week in the middle, more marking, Christmas day flies by in a blur, more marking, committees, 12 more weeks of teaching (yay for the reading week), marking and we are right back round again.

It’s never ending. It should be a predictable cycle that allows you to plan and be organised and get ahead of things and therefore create time for your own research. But there’s too much. You never get the chance to really get ahead because all you can do in a day is firefight, you don’t get chance to get ahead. It’s nearly 3pm and I am about to look at my to do list for today because when I logged on at 6am this morning I started with the important/urgent stuff in my inbox. I haven’t go to the urgent but less important and the important but not urgent isn’t likely to get done until it is urgent. I’m drowning and do you want to know why? Because I care. I care about my colleagues in the Law School so rather than watch them struggle through totally unreasonable amounts of marking I have pitched in – not much but maybe enough to help a little;  I care about HE so instead of just nodding and smiling I have and continue to challenge in meetings etc when I think issues need to be talked about or when decisions are likely to impact on us negatively; instead of buying into the neoliberal HE agenda I am trying to run our School in as collegial a way as possible. I also care about students. That seems unreasonable in the current climate. It’s about the market and what the market wants, it’s not about students. I refuse to accept that we are providing a student experience. No, university is not an experience in that sense although it is absolutely an experience is so many other ways – but they’re all non-market ways.

Anyway, I care about students – that means that I actually read their exams and their coursework. I read it carefully. And if I get tired and one assignment blurs into the next, well I just make another cup coffee and try again. I spend time with students – before the exams and after to talk about my subject but also to talk about their lives – because often they don’t have anywhere else to go and have those conversations. I could have dealt with exam concerns, worries about what comes after graduation, as well as personal issues – some minor some major – by email but more often than not I invite students to come and see me to talk it through. Why? Because it matters to them! And this whole bloody thing is about them!

I also care about my research but I actually just don’t have time to care about my research. I just don’t.

So what has all this got to do with striking for fairer pay? Well quite a lot. A lot of what I have outlined and what I experience daily is part of a pretty toxic culture in HE. It’s a culture that values managers far more than academics and which constantly devalues and undermines the work that academics do, the expertise we have and the contributions we make to our institutions and the wider world (and I don’t mean our economic value!). The totally unbalanced pay structures which see senior managers earn significant pay packets and leave junior lecturers barely scraping by is a fundamental part of this culture. Let me be clear, my salary is a decent salary. However, the person who had the job before me got paid a lot more, A LOT MORE, than I do (yes, male); women still earn less than men on average but often also when doing exactly the same job; staff on casual contracts are paid almost nothing when you take into account their qualifications and what institutions expect of them. It’s simply not fair and it is the best way to run our universities into the ground, to take any fight out of us troublesome academics and to produce armies of little worker drones who are well equipped with employability skills but wouldn’t know an independent thought if it slapped them in the face.

So yes I’ll be striking tomorrow and the day after. Not because I personally want to be paid more but because we need to start fighting back, we need to set the wheels in motion to get our HE back. We need people at all levels to be paid fairly, we need senior managers to take equality seriously, we need to think about what putting students at the heart of HE really means and we need to create time and space for academics and for students to care, to think, to listen,to teach, to learn, to read, to write and to breathe.

If you want to find out more about the strike please take a look at www.ucu.org.uk