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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Why the UCU strike against casualisation is also a fight for students: A story of personal experience

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Students at 60 universities have now lost five days of teaching due to strike action, with a further three days to come next week. Whether I've been standing on the physical picket line, listening at our teach outs, or digitally canvassing on twitter, the amount of support and solidarity students have given back has been empowering. 

Yet it would also be understandable why students, perhaps even the silent majority of them, may question the impact the action is having on them. Students are being told that staff need secure pensions, a pay rise to reflect inflation, less extreme workloads, greater equality for female and BAME colleagues, and fewer casual contracts to improve the efficacy of the teaching that they deliver. Yet if a student has lost out on several hours of contact time, the immediate impact on any individual learner - a definitive event - feels harsh when weighed against the speculation that these enhancements for lecturers might support prospective students in the future. In the transactional economy that is university education these days, some students will feel that our claims are stretched to breaking point across two poles: the projected benefits to us, and the immediate deficits to them.

Will Dr Jones's lecture on mammalian evolution in the ice age really be ten percent better next year if Dr Jones knows that she will have a good pension in thirty years time? Will fixed-term teaching fellow Dr Williams give feedback on essays about Jane Austen's heroines that will be three times more useful if his contract lasts for three years rather than one?

Of course, the polarising us-and-them division is invalid given the structural market inequities within HE from which we all suffer. Yet at the level of the individual student, things can feel instinctively muddier. Alongside the higher-level analyses, it's important to represent the individual teacher's point of view and their actual work with students. My recent experiences at the Open University give a particular, tangible example of how improved conditions for staff will improve teaching, not just speculatively but in the here and now.

I find myself in a peculiar position in this dispute. Because while I've been fully supportive of the action in relation to my role at Durham University, at the Open University the zombie horror of endless casualisation is something that has recently been put to the stake. Weirdly, at the very moment when morale nationally is at an all-time low, mine personally is riding high as far as the OU is concerned. And it has immediately improved my support of students.

To see how and why, let's turn back the clock a couple of years.

By early 2018 I was in a bad place mentally, linked to the deconstruction of the institution as a whole. Then Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, was threatening to, in essence, turn the OU into a giant MOOC, doing away with the personal tutor-student relationship that we know is essential to student success; this came on the back of a disastrous implementation of a new tuition policy which made face-to-face support harder to access for many. And running longer term in the background to all this was the fact that, despite me knowing from student feedback, teaching observations, marking statistics, and peer monitoring that I'm good at what I do, I have had to apply to the OU 17 times in the decade I've been there, as contracts on individual modules came to an end or as I was made redundant on one and had to apply for another to compensate. After the background hum of casualisation, the noise of the Horrocks revolution meant I had never felt more precarious in ten years working in HE.

As a consequence, my motivation slumped, and students suffered. I stopped making extra (unpaid) phone calls to check up on particularly struggling students. Instead of posting weekly or even daily to my tutor group forums, far beyond what was workloaded, I only did the light touch moderation expected. Instead of busting a gut to return marking, I worked up to my 10-working-day contractual turnaround.  Rather than responding to student emails more or less every day, I checked email two or three times a week, and uninstalled my OU account from my phone. I was working to contract, and although I hope I still gave a decent experience and support to students - and most won't have known it could have been different - I certainly didn't do the extra which I, like most of my colleagues, do.

This is what the threat of casualisation, and the erosion of working conditions more generally, does. Teachers are not robots. We are passionate about what we do -  but because that passion is already exploited with us putting in many hours of unpaid labour, it's easy to become utterly demotivated once it goes entirely unrecognised by institutional strategies that treat you as a disposable problem. It was not inapt that Peter Horrocks was ultimately ousted for claiming that 'academics don't teach'.

Fast-forward to the present. Thanks to the endeavours of an active union, and a now-responsive management, change is coming. Associate Lecturers will be employed on a more conventional, permanent basis. The leadership of interim VC Professor Mary Kellet was exemplary, while her replacement Professor Tim Blackman looks set to be a similarly positive appointment. And along with the enhanced prospect, so tooI'm back to my old self. All those things listed above, which I stopped doing when demotivated, I've started doing once again.

But as well as having an immediate benefit to students, giving teachers long-term confidence also entails long-term payback in terms of teaching enhancement.

In any one hour in the classroom, my teaching is probably no better than many a brand-new PhD teaching assistant could do. What I do have on my side is pedagogic experience, which I can contribute if I'm employed for the long term. Here are some of the scholarship projects I'm currently involved in across both Durham and the OU:

  • Investigating how we might help students to feel more integrated into a subject learning community
  • Sitting on an Athena Swan panel and contributing to the actions that should significantly improve areas like the inclusivity of events, and the gender diversity of the undergraduate intake from A-Level
  • Pioneering digital storytelling to help students to reflect upon their learning
  • Experimenting with ways to employ playful learning in online forums, and delivering staff development workshops on the subject
  • Contributing data to explore how students with BAME and disability profiles engage with synchronous online teaching

Each of these projects will take more than one year to come to fruition. In the cycle of scholarship, you might well test a new technique in the classroom one year and gather some preliminary feedback to see whether it has potential; refine and redeliver the next year with a more robust survey methodology; disseminate within the institution; and eventually publish the findings externally. These are not quick or easy wins.

In each of these projects I am collaborating with one or more colleagues (who I won't name in this particular post - but you know who you are). These aren't people I just plucked out of a university email directory. They are trusted friends with whom I've built up relationships over a number of years, so that we have the mutual confidence to be frank with one another, to experiment, to fail, and then to fail better.

If you're employed on casual contracts, without knowing what will come after that twelve month period, you simply cannot iterate and enhance like this. As any Silicon Valley CEO will know, the most valuable asset an innovative organisation can utilise is not money, but time to think: throw that away, as universities do when they employ people short-term, and you lose potential.

Students might only notice what is not happening right now, amid the strike, namely hours in the classroom. My experience at the OU shows why there should be immediate returns to students and a better experience if we have teachers who aren't utterly demotivated and demoralised by working conditions, in spite of their ingrained desire to do their best for those they teach. But it's important to reflect on what also will not happen next year, or in five years, or ten years, if endemic casualisation, workloads, and other challenges to staff motivation continue to rot the foundations of what we do, and what we love.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:55 pm


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