February 2020

This term, I’m convening a course on the Later Stuarts and the early Hanoverian period. It meant that I had a busy Christmas pulling all the materials together, but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out, and it’s the first time I’ve ever put together a whole module.

So far, it seems to be going well, and it’s really unfortunate that the UCU strike is going to have such a high impact on this course – as the teaching is all on Mondays, they will lose three weeks completely. This includes a few of the things that I was really looking forward to – getting them to act out short excerpts from Aphra Behn’s The Rover, for example, and listening to their formal presentations.

Today, for the first time ever, I am on strike. @LancasterUCU You will not see me on the picket line (at least not yet) because frankly, I’m exhausted. @ucu here’s my #precaritystory

On Thursday morning, I posted a series of tweets which look set to be the most-read thing I’ve ever written, or am ever likely to. They came as I hit the bottom of a trough I’ve been trying to avoid for a while, and they seem to have touched a chord. As I write, on Saturday afternoon, the original tweet has been retweeted 313 times and has been seen by more than 120,000 people.

I’m on strike for the first time ever. I always managed to avoid it when I was teaching. And although I will go out on the picket line if we’re still striking in a week or two, at the moment, I’m just too tired. I am, as I said, exhausted – and that’s one reason why there hasn’t been any activity on the blog since the end of December. I thought I’d use a bit of my time to explain in a bit more detail where I’m at, what’s going on, and why I’ve been brought to this point.

I have very mixed feelings about this strike for a number of reasons, but in the end, how else will things change?

For one thing, I don’t like going on strike. Students deserve an education, and their learning is disrupted when we withdraw our labour. Yes, there are plenty of materials on the moodle or blackboard or whatever virtual learning environment we choose to use, but there’s nothing like being able to discuss them together. There is a lot of guilt here. If I didn’t want to teach, and if I didn’t value teaching and learning I wouldn’t be in this job.

There should be dialogue. I’d like to think things should be sorted out by talking. Striking should be a last resort. And in this case, it is. If I didn’t value teaching and learning so highly, I wouldn’t be on strike. Because something has to change.

I passed my viva in 2015. For a year I had no work.

That is the only reason I’ve got a book. I had nothing else really to occupy the 16 horrendous months when I had no income. I managed to spend that time researching my extra chapter, and revising my PhD.

Oh, and writing job applications of course. Knowing what I know now, I realise that a lot of that was time wasted. There was no way that I could ever have been shortlisted for any of those roles – I simply couldn’t compete with people like the person I am now, let alone people like the ones who are able to move all over the country to take up fellowships and short term cover positions.

But not all those jobs were in academia. I’ve never restricted myself to academic jobs. I’ve applied for teaching positions (I’m a qualified teacher and I always assumed I would go back to that), museum and heritage work, educational outreach roles, administration… anything that would bring in a regular pay packet and seemed within the scope of my skills. Nothing.

And then there were the applications for research grants. A whole other level of time-consuming and soul-destroying madness. One year an application got through to the second round of the British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowships – no mean feat in itself, and I was over the moon. But that’s the closest I’ve ever come.

Then I picked up a 3 hours a week teaching on a university evening course. I held on to this work for 3.5 years. But there was no pay during the holidays, and often they couldn’t tell me if there would be any work at all until 2 or even1 week before term started. A couple of weeks before term started, I was asked to write an entire unit of 8 lectures and 16 hours of seminar material. I needed the money, so I said yes.

Long term readers will know that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the First Year history course for Liverpool Hope. They might remember my class drawing the causes of the civil war, re-creating Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech or singing a witchcraft ballad.

The new unit was the Foundation Course on Making Modern Britain. I was told that there was no one else to teach it as all the permanent staff had full workloads, so although it would be a lot of work in the first year, it would be mine to teach thereafter – a promise of some regular (if still hourly-paid) work. Now I know that the person who told me this believed it, as at the time they had no reason to think otherwise. It was a promise made in good faith.

The trouble was that it was already past the beginning of September and the course would start at the beginning of October – while the student material needed to be ready before that, as the course moodle was supposed to be ready a couple of weeks before the students started. I believe that this Foundation Course was supposed to be rolled out the following year, but someone in the university management had decided that as there had been several enquiries from humanities students after the A level results came out, they would bring it forward.

Not my area. Cue two weeks of frantic research and writing.

I’m a sixteenth century specialist, but I can turn my hand to a lot, and this was only a foundation (pre-first year) course, so I knuckled down and got on with it. Working all hours – a level of work only surpassed by the two weeks before I submitted the first full draft of my thesis to my supervisors.

The inbuilt ‘prep time’ of 2hrs per contact hour didn’t come near how long it actually took. Write a lecture in 2 hours on something you know little about? I think not. Of course I’m going to spend more time on it. I am a professional & students deserve better than a rush job.

And this is how academia works. If I had ever got to teach it again, the hours of preparation that I put in would have paid off. But that’s not what happens to hourly paid casual staff, as a rule – we usually teach different courses ever year, so we’re always doing more preparation, more reading…

I’m still proud of that unit. Despite the rush, the activities were carefully designed to introduce students to the historian’s art and they worked really well. I never got to teach it again. The course as a whole was restructured and the work reallocated to permanent staff.

I put a lot of effort in to writing a course that would introduce students to a wide range of source material, walk them through how to read academic articles, find appropriate resources and even think about how television presents history. Meanwhile, they got to do source analysis, reflective tasks, their own research and presentation… It was, if I do say so myself, pretty good.

I was asked to cover a whole module at another university. It was great. But again, I only worked 20 hours a week for 10 weeks. It was cover for research leave, so there was no chance of it being extended.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Edge Hill too. On the back of this, I got asked to develop the department’s summer school offering – one of the few things that helps to keep my finances afloat during the summer vacation.

 Again the gaping summer loomed. No work, no money and no guarantee of anything in the future. But I keep hanging on in hope…. It’s not much fun living in my house in the summer. There’s very little money and I find it very stressful.

When you’re an hourly paid, casual worker, you don’t get paid in the summer because there is no teaching. It’s vacation, so you have to find alternative means of supporting yourself. There might be a bit of work on a summer school, or exam invigilation, but it’s a really difficult time largely because there is never any guarantee that there will be more work in the autumn. I start my summer not knowing if I’m going to get any more work, and I often finish it the same way – I really do only find out a matter of days before teaching begins. Why? Because the universities don’t know how many students they are going to have to teach:

In the early summer of 2010, a decision was taken by an inner cabinet of the incoming Tory-led coalition government that has revolutionized higher education in England and Wales (though not in Scotland). Framed as part of a wider dismantling of public services in the name of ‘austerity’, the decision was to almost totally remove public funding for university teaching and replace it with high student fees backed by income-contingent loans, with the intention of creating a ‘market’ in higher education. Since then, a succession of steps have been taken to consolidate this marketisation. It has been made much easier for private providers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, to obtain degree-granting powers and the right for their students to be eligible for publicly-backed loans. The cap on student numbers has been removed, encouraging universities to maximise their income by admitting greatly increased undergraduate numbers. And a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been installed which awards Olympic-style gradings to universities on the basis of such metrics as the employment record of their graduates.

https://fabians.org.uk/the-marketisation-of-higher-education/ [accessed 22/02/20

Now whatever your political allegiances, that paragraph sums up the changes to the university system in the last 10 years. Vice chancellors are now running businesses, and money is spent on capital projects. The proportion of money spent on staff has dropped.

No lazy summer days relaxing. No, that’s the time when I do my own research, for nothing. While panicking about whether I’ll get any more work. My partner and children suffer, because I’m tired, anxious and burned out.

Yes, I’ve still got to carry on with my own research, even though no one pays me to do it – in fact, it costs me money in travel, conference attendance, image rights, digitisation costs, paper and ink…. Because I’ve got to keep publishing at a rate of knots. A book isn’t enough, there always needs to be more if I want a permanent job. And I’ve got to develop all my ideas, plan future research projects… It’s never enough, as there could always be more.

In 2018, I managed to pick up some hourly paid work at my dream university. But after 18 months, I’m on my 25th short term casual contract.

They range from 30 minutes to 132 hours; from running welcome week introductions through delivering seminars, through setting up an entire course from scratch to supervising a PhD. And don’t forget the 16 dissertations I’m supervising.

These aren’t 25 ongoing contracts – some last far longer than others. I am currently teaching 6 seminars across 2 different first year courses and convening a second year module that I have created from a single paragraph outline as well as supervising 16 dissertations and acting as second supervisor on a PhD.

I never get paid the same from one month to the next. Except of course in summer when I don’t get paid at all. It’s impossible to tell if I’m being paid correctly and the strike will just make that worse.

Some of these contracts last for several weeks, some for several monsths, some are only a few days. Some of the contracts are on timesheets, some are paid monthly. Work comes and goes – for example I gave up last weekend to mark 25 second year essays, but that was a one off and I got a new contract just covering that. It’s almost impossible to keep on top off, and makes life incredibly hard work. I can’t help but think it would just be easier for the department to put me on a part time contract – the departmental administrator must spend hours generating all these separate contracts for me!

Last year a permanent job came up where I’m working. I applied, I interviewed, but I didn’t get it. I was and still am devastated. My hope has gone.

Because I can’t see how I’m ever going to get a proper academic job now. I know that any of the 5 of us who interviewed for that position could have done it. There’s so little to choose between us when we all have to be academic superheros. I drive home from work each day conflicted. I’m buzzing from teaching and working with such a great bunch of colleagues – I love it! But I know there is little chance of a long term future doing this. People have been very supportive since I didn’t get the job, pointing out that I have an excellent application for other jobs. But very few come up, and fewer still at places I can actually get to. I’m not prepared to move house because I’ve got family and friends here, and my children are settled in their schools. Academia doesn’t let you put your family first.

But I’m still working all hours [I did 15 yesterday although I admit that’s not normal!] because if I don’t, I can’t get through the work from one day to the next.

And I’m paid by the hour. Each seminar or lecture has an allocated number of hours of preparation time. Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it isn’t. After all, if I happen to have read and know the two articles set as reading for a seminar, that’s fine. If I have to find those readings, especially on a topic that isn’t directly my area, then obviously it’s going to take far longer. How many articles do I have to read before I find the two that are just right?

This tends to work itself out a little if you teach the same course from one year to the next, as changes are incremental after the first year. But often we don’t, so we’re trapped in a cycle of read: prepare: teach: repeat. And the truth is that during term time, I can’t afford to turn any work down, because I don’t know whether I’ll get any more.

I really appreciate the people I’ve worked with at all these places. They work hard and worked hard to help me get more work. The problem isn’t them. It’s systemic. Our university system is broken because it’s all about the money. Education is not a business.

And this is one of the things I want to stress – the people I’ve worked with have been great – they understand the situation and they know that its exploitative. And they’ve done their best not just to get me more casual work but to help me find a more permanent role. I’m pleased to say that my head of department is making a stand on my behalf. But I am only one person, and so is he. The problem is so much bigger. Universities rely on casual staff like me.

I am working the equivalent of a full time academic job, but I will not earn £10k this academic year. And I have no hope of a full time permanent post. I would be better off stacking shelves at Aldi

Let’s get this straight. I don’t have the admin that permanent staff take on. But I have more teaching. As of contract number 25, I will make just over £10200 this academic year. A full time lecturer makes more than 3 times that amount.

Someone complained that I shouldn’t use the demeaning ‘working in retail’ trope. I don’t see anything demeaning about working in retail. Demeaning is not having an income for a quarter of the year. Demeaning is working for nothing. Demeaning is not having enough money to pay the bills even if you’re working full time. Demeaning is not knowing whether you’re going to get ny more work after your current contract ends. I don’t think I deserve a high salary because I’ve got a PhD. I am happy to work on the minimum wage, and I’ve done it regularly since I got my doctorate.

But the fact remains that, as my son pointed out, I would earn more at Aldi, because I would be paid for all the hours I did. I would have a permanent contract, so there would be security. And I would be able to walk home from work at the end of the shift and forget all about it.

Our students deserve to be taught by staff who don’t have to worry about where their next wage packet is coming from and whether they can pay the bills. Who have time to develop their research, keep up to date in their field & develop research-led teaching that can enthuse

Because constant worry is exhausting. When we’re exhausted and overworked, permanently worried and we daren’t turn down any work, then we’re not going to be working at our best, no matter how hard we try.

So that’s why I on strike. It’s probably too late to help me – I think my days of working in university will soon be over, though it breaks my heart because I love this job. But no-one else deserves to go through this.

So heartbreaking that I am, finally, crying.

I haven’t had time to grieve for my academic dreams since I didn’t get the job. I spent most of Christmas putting together the new course that I was covering for a colleague and convening from scratch. It didn’t leave time for much else. And when you hurtle from one bit of work to the next, you don’t have time to stop and think.

Now I’m on strike, I do.

I’m sad that it has come to this.