It’s been a year since I’ve posted here and a very busy year at that. I’ve had a little more time lately – although that is a relative term when there’s a thesis brewing – so here I am again. As the nights draw in it becomes a time for reflection and getting nostalgic. We’re almost at the end of the second universities strike in two years. Tomorrow is the last of 8 strike days in the UCU strike and I’ll be heading to the picket line again. I was brought up to respect unions and the power of collective action and bargaining. My mum was an actress. Joining the union, Equity, meant that you could work. Getting your Equity card was your badge of professionalism, it meant you’d had at least five paying jobs. As a journalist, I applied for my NUJ card as soon as I started studying. It meant that I could blag my way into nightclubs but over the years I’ve been glad of my union membership. As a freelance journalist knowing that you have the support of a union behind you when you’re otherwise out on your own is a huge thing. There was a strike in the first journalism job I ever had, at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast. I was freelancing but I wouldn’t cross the picket line. Solidarity is an important thing – though on that occasion I did go into Broadcasting House when the picket went for lunch. I was too precarious not to.
Well, I’m still precarious. I love teaching but it does feel like being back in those early journalism days. My first cheque was for £30 if I remember rightly. I was dead chuffed (that was my rent back then). That’s the thing with now and gets down to why I’m striking. It might feel the same as those days hustling for a story but it’s not the same. Now I teach both history and journalism as a doctoral tutor and this is necessary because I’m doing my doctorate unfunded. It’s not how I planned it but funding is hard to get. That’s a subject for another day though. I rely on teaching around campus because fitting a doctorate around any other type of work is next to impossible.
I’m striking because I’m paid hourly and those hours aren’t the hours that I invoice for, those are the hours allotted. For each hour I teach I get paid three more. That sounds like a good deal but in those three extra hours, I’m supposed to give feedback to students, mark their work and, most importantly of all, prepare for my teaching. I am given one hour to prepare for teaching. This is actually a pretty good deal by academic standards. But I’m a latecomer to academia. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve even designed material for the purposes of teaching others in those environments. I would have got balled out of it if I’d taken an hour to prep. If you don’t believe me take a look at the rates recommended here. Now OK, that’s corporate tech training but still, for Instructor-Led Training – which includes design, lesson plans, handouts and Powerpoint slides – the recommended rate is 34:1. That’s 34 hours to every one taught. I’d love to know if anyone outside very, very high-end corporate actually manages to get that ratio but even in the basic stuff I used to do the rule of thumb was 7 hours prep for one presenting. That’s not the reality in academia.
I’m also striking because this term by term merry-go-round is probably it for the foreseeable future. Fixed-term, fractional contracts are the norm for post-doctorate jobs and quite a bit post-doc at that. I’m also striking because this situation is absolutely head wrecking for those of us reliant on it. It’s also not fair on the students who are paying over £9,000 a year for their education. I’m striking because something has to change, for everyone’s sake.
I’ve had cause to think about my own time at college over the past week as well. Last week I learned that one of my old lecturers had died. I have fond memories of Muiris Mac Ghongail. He taught me when I was doing my degree at the Dublin Institute of Journalism in the late 1990s. Muiris was never boring, always inspiring. His classes were always well attended. We’ve got a Whatsapp group at the moment because it’s 20 years since we graduated next year. The news was shared on there and all day my phone was beeping with memories of Muiris. I was heading to the picket line that day, listening to stories of teaching now, of workloads, of lack of contact with students. Every now and then I checked the Whatsapp messages. The same memories kept coming up – that he was a great dissertation mentor and also that he used to take us down to the pub on occasion and hold forth. Now I don’t oversee dissertations at the moment but I know that my students complain about contact hours with teaching staff. They want more than drop-in office hours and I sympathise. I’ve seen student suggestions on our uni student app that they would like to spend more time with teaching staff. The pub has been suggested. I remember going to the pub with Muiris. He was always entertaining and those were definitely memorable evenings but I’m not sure I would be happy to see a revival of what was fairly normal in the mid-90s. Muiris was very generous with his time but other teachers would only ask certain students. There was a lot of resentment about a certain boys club we female members of the class could see back then. It’s all water under the bridge now but it’s another reason I’m not sure I’d be in favour of a return to that kind of completely relaxed interaction. It’s too easy for lines to blur, for favouritism, for things to get messy. But looking back on those days, on days when I didn’t graduate with a debt, when we only had 30 to a class when we could just drop in on teachers. Something has definitely been lost with student numbers climbing and we can feel its loss and so can our students.
So we strike and try to slay the neoliberal beast. It’s only taken 10 years to get to this, the removal of the cap on student numbers and the speeding up of the marketisation of education under Cameron and Gove. People have a choice in this election for change or more of the same with bells on.