Universities can’t run on luck alone – they have to invest in people


I am a university lecturer; I feel lucky and I really love my job. I run an interdisciplinary degree for mature students, returning to study, at the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Leeds.

This job gives me the chance to work with adults who have often not thought they would get the opportunity to study at degree level, and to learn alongside them as they discover what it is to make the time and space to research, debate, think critically and create themselves anew within a learning community.

This degree, and the Lifelong Learning Centre’s work more broadly, are part of the university’s strategy to widen participation in higher education and provide an inclusive education for all. However, while the university locally, and the government’s Office for Students, may profess to be aiming for inclusion, the higher education sector in the UK (and beyond the UK) is an incredibly exclusive, unequal and precarious place to work.  

This is why I, along with colleagues across 74 universities, have been striking for 18 days and counting (eight days in November/December 2019 and a further 14 from February 2020 – I write this on day 18).  With this industrial action – in which 74 universities are participating – we aim to get the employers to address the chronic and related issues of casualisation, workload, gender and ethnicity pay gaps, and deflated pay.

I say these issues are related – it is important to consider how they are. The story of their interrelation is the story of the lived experience of being an academic or academic-related member of staff in the UK university sector and it is one we should pay attention to because it ultimately affects all of us: whether we are working or studying at a university, or have family who will be working or studying at university, or will benefit from the research, training and knowledge creation undertaken at universities (all of us!).

I will briefly tell my own story to illustrate my point. I gained my PhD in English (well, Canadian) literature in 2006, the same year I turned 30. To fund my way through my PhD I had worked on a zero hours contract as a dyslexia support worker in higher education, and a number of other casual contracts as an English lecturer and as a library assistant.

None of this casual work involved getting paid in the summer; I became a specialist at building up contingency funds, maintaining up to six different contracts at the same time so that I could benefit from the work when it was available. And for the most part I felt lucky – yes, that word again – because I had options: I had had the foresight to train as a dyslexia support worker, and I had built the relationships in different research networks and universities to know when the casual contracts for teaching were available.

But what was the other side of this? The universities were benefitting from my labour without giving me full access to sick pay or holidays – or fully paying me for my time (I always took student support very seriously – zero hour contracts do not fully cover for the time it takes to prepare for lectures; they certainly don’t stretch to replying to student emails and meeting to give essay guidance and feedback).

Meanwhile, I was getting used to working 50-60 hours weeks (this is what it amounted to once I undertook my own research on top of the contact hours and teaching prep) and feeling ‘lucky’ for the opportunity; and my students were building a relationship with someone with no job security who could leave at any minute.

Finally, others, unable to pick up as much teaching (it takes time and local knowledge to build the relationships – what if you are a parent? What if you are an international student?), unable to fund themselves through the summer (what if you have a family to support? What if you have a visa to pay for? What if your visa won’t allow you to stay in the country if you are not working?) dropped out of academia.

I then got really ‘lucky’, getting a temporary 10 month teaching fellow post, followed by another one at Keele University (yes, 10 – not 12 – no pay for the summer), and then a two-year research fellow post at the University of Huddersfield (extended to three years after a fight). Again, I loved these jobs – but I was getting increasingly tired of the precarity of my situation and increasingly aware of how demoralised others in more precarious situations than me were feeling.

These were institutions, like the university sector as a whole, where the staff were clearly overworked and underpaid, so my labour (and that of all the others on the temporary contracts which always proliferate when the REF looms) was welcome and needed on a more permanent basis.

They were also places where I built up meaningful academic and supportive relationships with students, but where my focus on student support was not valued – to put it bluntly: supporting students was not something which could bring prestige and money to the institution. When my contract at Huddersfield came to an end, I was ready to leave academia.

It was 2014 – eight years since I had got my PhD – and it didn’t seem as though I would ever get a permanent job within a university. And then a job at the Lifelong Learning Centre came along. I got it and have felt ‘lucky’ ever since.

This feeling of ‘luckiness’ is part of the problem, though – I now realise, I have been in danger of internalising the idea that teaching at a university is a vocation and that because I love my job I should live to work, and not worry too much about what I get paid (hey! I get paid in the summer: bonus!) or what my workload is.

But I do worry: because as a white woman I am part of a demographic who get paid on average 15.1 per cent less than white men doing the same work; while Asian women get paid on average 22 per cent less and black women get around 39 per cent less. (Read about the ethnicity pay gap here and See more about unequal pay here) Who is that is stopped from working at universities? Whose voices are we not hearing?

And I do worry because the average university lecturer is working 50 hours a week (with many working up to 70) – when are they getting to live their lives outside of work? Who are we losing through burnout? How are these pressures affecting their ability to support students? (Read more about workload issues here).

And I do worry because the university sector has become one the worst sectors when it comes to comes to employing people on casual contracts (Read about the problems with casualisation here) – how is this insecurity affecting people’s material ability to be able to pay their rent? Support their family? Maintain feelings of self-worth? Give all students – with their diverse experience and needs – the support and guidance they need to thrive?

I worry, and I know we should all be worried about the future of universities in the UK; currently, universities are being run as profit-making businesses and students are being asked to think of themselves as consumers and demand value for money.

But, education is not a product, and students are not consumers: universities need to give staff and students the space to create the kind learning and research environments which enable us to learn from each other, engage in dialogue and create knowledge which will benefit everyone.

It is for this that I stand – outside on picket lines, day after day, losing pay every day we withhold our labour, with my colleagues to fight because we know there is a better way. And I feel more than luck to be able to stand with the real heart of the university – both staff and students – in that liminal but real and productive space that is the physical (and digital) picket line – I feel pride and I know that the future of universities is with those outside asking for equality.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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