6 minutes reading time (1295 words)

Why did I just give up almost two weeks pay?

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by Becky Cherriman

Becky Cherriman is a writer, mentor and performer based in Yorkshire. She believes that writing both helps us understand the world and offers tools which can transform our lives. Empires of Clay is her debut collection.

This article originally appear on Becky's blog and we are grateful to her for permission to repost it here.

I had only been a part-time Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre for six weeks when University College Union went on an eight day strike over pay devaluation, pensions, pay inequality, job insecurity and overwork. So why, just after I had said farewell to much of my regular freelance work, did I decide to give up almost two week's pay to join them?

It wasn't easy. As someone who has been teaching freelance in various contexts for seventeen years I am used to always fighting for my students and putting their immediate needs first. At the university I teach mostly mature students who haven't had the easiest passages into higher education. Their lives are often complex with stresses and pressures additional to those usually experienced by younger students. A high proportion of them have Dyslexia or other learning differences which mean they often need specific support. In the case of my module, a few also have English as a second language. So for them to be told their tutor is going to be absent for two weeks at the end of the semester can be stressful.

But, as someone who has been teaching so long knows, there is a bigger picture to education than the next two sessions. The NUS know this and are supporting the strikes. Go here for more details about why.

I love the work I do for the university but already have experience of job insecurity an casualization — my one day a week post was a two year fixed contract and ends in March, the staff I co-manage are all on yearly part-time contracts. I am deeply uncomfortable with the gender and race pay gaps and how this is exacerbated by intersectionality. But since I started in my academic post, the biggest impact on me has been workload. So far I have needed to work eighty percent more hours than I am contracted for. These additional hours have just about allowed me to plan and teach the course, fulfil basic university requirements and meet the needs of the students and staff I am co-managing. I have a good line manager who is flexible and I will be able to claim some of this time back in lieu but obviously not all. I haven't even started marking yet (which is now, rightly, a thorough, detailed and time-consuming process). I have eighteen students and last year when I took over the module due to staff sickness it took me three-four hours to complete the required marking for each student. I will be quicker this time but still, I am expected to mark all the work within two weeks alongside other duties. You can see how it might be tricky to fit that into two weeks, each consisting of 11.25 paid hours.

Because I have only been in post for a short time I can only write about what my students have told me and my own experience. However, that my passionate, dedicated and hardworking colleagues at the Lifelong Learning Centre were prepared to strike made me realise these kinds of problems (and more) were systemic. If they were going to strike, they must have good reason. When I asked this is what they said:

"I am striking because overwork, precarity and unequal pay and conditions have become normalised within universities. We are asked to do more for less and this exhausts staff and does students a disservice: it is impossible to give the time we would want to provide support for all who need it and an inclusive learning environment where all students can thrive. We do our best but at the risk of damaging our own health. We need to move to secure contracts for all and realistic workloads so that we can build a healthy productive work and learning environment for all. This takes care and it means seeing universities as places for mutually transformative learning and thinking not as places for people to buy opportunity from others who are seen as resources."
"For me the key issues are the continuing casualisation of the workforce/use of hourly and fixed term contracts as standard practice not just to fill or cover gaps. Workloads disproportionately affect workers who are single parents or caregivers or who have disabilities or health issues and so are an equality as well as a wellbeing/productivity issue. Pensions contributions and benefits need to be fair and based on a reasonable assessment of the current state of the USS pension scheme and potential risk to employers."
"I am striking because HE needs to change: staff are asked to do more and more for less and less, particularly colleagues on precarious contracts."
"I strike because academia is gradually being defined through neoliberal principles which are at odds with the values that, in my view, should underpin academia: knowledge sharing and co-production and critical/inclusive education for the good of all and for social progress. Commercialisation and aggressive competition undermines these values, dehumanises staff and students and create toxic working and learning conditions for those involved. So I strike."

Imagine what happens to staff who are so overworked. Rates of staff needing to use counselling services at universities has soared .Imagine what happens to their students if they have to abandon teaching an entire module or student support work due to a breakdown or a stroke. Imagine then that their already over-worked colleague who isn't an expert in the field has to cover for them. What happens to the education students are receiving then? What happens to that colleague? Even if staff are robust enough to cope with extreme overwork, can students really obtain the best from them if they are so overstretched and exhausted? The UCU writes more about what is at stake here.

Students are paying huge fees but are they being spent as they should? The average basic pay of a vice chancellor is rising above the price of inflation while in real terms university staff pay has gone down by almost 20% in the last ten years).

I have worked in many contexts. I know pay, conditions and pensions are worse on average in other sectors (FE and community arts for example). I would love to see all those who are treated badly by employers stop turning against one another and get together to fight for fairer conditions. I believe the privileges those of us working in the university sector do have — of education, of being part of a large union, of not being on minimum wage — come with duties. What kind of future workplaces are we creating for our students if we don't say no to unfair treatment in our own? If we believe we have a responsibility to our students and to the wider society, we have a responsibility to think beyond those eight days.

The good news is that universities have started to listen and are in talks with the UCU now. You can encourage them to negotiate a better deal for us and help us get back to work by supporting our struggle in any one of the ways UCU suggest:

  • Visit the picket lines to express your support
  • Tweet your support using the hashtag #UCUstrike
  • Email the vice chancellor to ask for fresh negotiations — you can do this online at www.ucu.org.uk/studentvoice by entering your institution name
  • Support striking staff and donate to the UCU fighting fund at http://www.ucu.org.uk/fightingfund
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Monday, 17 February 2020