I wrote this text to reflect on my workload in Higher Education, seven weeks into Term 1 of 2019-20. I hope friends in similar situations add their voice, while friends in better situations and students become fully aware of the following example (here, mine). If nothing more, getting this down on paper was a meaningful process of clarification.
UPDATE 5 February 2020
Another UCU strike was just announced – so I seem to be keeping this in sync.
I have been working without a contract or pay for one of my teaching roles since September. Others have been paid as additional hours to my fixed contracts, despite them being ongoing appointments for two years. This means I still don’t know how many hours I should be paid for.
I am not the only one in this position.
Here are some of the reactions to this initial post, from friends, colleagues and strangers:
“I’m in an unbelievable position of privilege compared to so many other people who recently finished a PhD and sometimes forget how strenuous and emotionally/mentally taxing term-to-term contracts are. From my end, I want to thank you for reminding me to be grateful for having this job. I’m also aware that I would never have this job if I had stayed in London – having said that, there are dozens and dozens of colleagues at my School who are in similar situations to you, and I am certainly the exception here too, not the rule.”
“Thanks for sending this; I relate to much of it, particularly ‘during term time my life belongs to the students, after term time to me’, and the point that there is simply no half-teaching. I also like that you have the guts to say we need to get past student experience; I’ve said similar things and have elicited audible gasps from such a heretical statement. Having taught in the UK for 10 years now, I’ve watched the system slide into a metrics/student experience obsession, with constantly multiplying admin demands and diminishing prospects for research support etc etc. It affects the student mindset as well; it seems that the students are following the institution’s lead and becoming more transactional, more grade obsessed, more anxious. But who knows, that’s pretty anecdotal and maybe I am just being an old person waxing about the old days. And of course over this time the fees tripled, so if there is a change in student attitude it’s largely due to that as well. (Strangely, my salary did not triple… where does all this money go…?)”
“I fully sympathise and associate with every single sentence… I have been thinking a lot about this upcoming strike. I cannot afford being on strike but think I should.”
I teach the history and theory of architecture, cities and design. This is my fifth year teaching and I got my PhD a year ago (2018). I currently work in architecture schools in three London universities, in the following roles:
- Teaching fellow (0.14FTE)
- Senior lecturer (0.5FTE)
- Sessional tutor (10 hours per week)
I work with 7 student groups a week (each a separate module), on a total of about 220 students.
This amounts to five contact hours a day Monday to Thursday, and two contact hours on Fridays. That is 22 contact hours a week on a 0.64FTE + my hourly-paid contract.
For the first six weeks of term I worked an extra two contact hours on Mondays, with two separate groups of students, to cover for a staffing gap (total workload = 9 groups, 250 students, 24 weekly contact hours).
In addition to this, I attend meetings, conduct academic advising sessions, lead field trips and supervise dissertations in different departments. In December I am examining a PhD. Between this and next term, I must supervise and mark 40 dissertations, and mark a further 100 essays.
Course prep, emails and admin duties take place during remaining daily hours and at weekends. In fact, this text was mostly formulated on a tube ride, which remains the only time I have been taking for myself since the start of the academic year (my commute is 75mins per way two days a week, 60mins per way another two days, and 30mins on the other day).
On Monday 11 November I exceptionally worked from 9am to 7.30pm contact time. On Thursday 15 November I had a breakdown. On Friday 16 November I was present at work and did again, exceptionally, 5.5 hours of contact time.
Delayed contracts and payments mean that I can’t yet clarify the total salary I receive each month. In October I earned £1655 (but this is very partial). I will update this post at the end of November with the correct total amount. [update Feb 2020: this is still a mystery!]
The energy transfer involved in teaching astonishes me daily: the giving and receiving, the intensities exchanged, the strained minds, affects, voices. It is inevitable for this work to be deeply personal, intense and involved – and I don’t know how to do it any other way.
I see my responsibilities in the following order: developing humans of the world, citizens of the city, and professionals of the built environment – and I try to work simultaneously on all three scales.
This work is my peril and my joy. I have cried and laughed with students, developed unbelievable frustrations and elations from their slacking or their activation, and I have measured my own professional worth in relation to their achievements (another veeery slippery slope!). During term time, my life belongs to the students. Outside term time, my life belongs to me.
The thing about teaching is, you can’t do half the job. So whether you get paid, supported, encouraged and respected for it, or not, you will give it all anyway. Balancing the cost of this to mental, emotional and physical integrity, with the sense of mission for the work, is a painful daily negotiation.
To be clear: this workload is not the responsibility of any single institution, but is a symptom of how unsustainable higher education employment has become. The 22 hours a week I just mentioned, I brought them onto myself. Why? I am not entirely sure. Because I wanted to prove to myself that I could power through it, because I believe in it with everything I have, because I live in London and I want to afford to travel. But this is not just me. The difference between allocated and actual hours in higher education is pushing us all to breaking point, and my situation is by no means exceptional. The direct result of this is that University College Union members are starting 8 days of strike action on 26 November, on two separate counts: one for pensions and one for workload.
Our profession is becoming unsustainable. As much as I energise from it, I have never felt I am operating at capacity as I do now. I have so much love and respect for my colleagues’ work, and so many broken colleagues. Fuck you, system, for breaking your best people. And for making me consider an absolute exit from this career almost every day, while I do the work that I wholeheartedly believe in.
What of this then? Some thoughts on what is needed:
- Urgent support for professional service and university support staff, whose workloads and precarious conditions make our situations seem privileged. UCL security guards, porters and cleaners are also undertaking industrial action this month to end outsourced work.
- Deprioritise the student experience: bring back learning, development, responsibility. Fear of NSS results is engulfing all our activities in a toxic corporate cloud.
- Create (invent!) time to develop mentoring relationships, both with senior academics and with students. Senior staff to speak up against the casual, unfair and precarious arrangements of younger staff.
- Write research time into all teaching contracts without exception: there is no teaching without research.
- For History and Theory and Contextual Studies tutors specifically: pool resources and create open source reading lists for spatial and built environment practices. So many colleagues across institutions repeat imperfect versions of each other’s work when supervising dissertations and recommending resources – more knowledge is better knowledge for all of us.