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On the role of unions

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 2 Dec 2022, 11:54

I don’t like going on strike. I find it really unsettling. It has upset my rhythm of work, and I worry about the impact that my withdrawal of labour has had on my colleagues. I also worry about the impact that it has had on my students too, but I’ve done my best to give everyone extensions and to keep them thoroughly informed about what has been going on.

It has been a weird strike. For most of it I’ve been out of action with an unfortunate dose of the flu. Rather than visiting friends who work at Goldsmiths University (the closest university to where I live), I’m been dosing myself up with paracetamol and reading trashy novels. My choice of words is deliberate: joining a picket line in another institution may go against trade union legislation. My choice of words is also appropriate: I do have some friends who work at Goldsmiths, and it’s always a pleasure to catch up with them.

I first joined the union, UCU, two years after starting work as a staff tutor, after having spent nearly three years as a postdoc researcher on an EU project, and around ten years as an AL. Before then, I worked as a contract researcher at the University of Brighton (which is also where my Goldsmiths friend used to work). With all this work history behind me, you could say that I’ve taken my time to make a decision about joining.

During my second year, it began to dawn on me that staff tutors could, accidentally and very easily, get themselves into a whole heap of trouble very quickly. I realised that we were very much in the middle of everything: tutors, our students, module teams, and other staff such as student support team members and curriculum managers. We work within a confluence of relationships. It wasn’t long before I found myself in an interesting situation: different people from different groups were angry for different reasons. It turned out I could help to address some of the issues, but not all of them.

Being caught in the middle of everything made me realise that effective support from senior management is absolutely essential for us staff tutors. The support that I’ve been given over the years has been fabulous; senior colleagues have always been thoughtful and fair minded. They have listened when they needed to, and have offered help and guidance when necessary. Things have worked out well because my colleagues have been great.

When placed in a challenging situation, I once asked the question: what would have happened if they hadn’t been so great? Realising that I’m in the middle of so many different relationships, and realising that I could inadvertently get myself into trouble, I finally saw a very clear and distinct reason to join the union. I realised that there might come a time where I might need a bit of help, and it was better to be proactive and to seek membership rather than to panic if something bad happened.

Since becoming a member, I’ve gone to a number of UCU events. I’ve been to one of their management and leadership training days, I’ve been to an OU-hosted event about decolonising the curriculum, and most recently to a short conference about education and climate change. All these events have been interesting, thought provoking and worthy. When I have a moment, I intend to write a short blog about the conference.

As I write this column, I have approaching 600 emails in my inbox. I’m not happy about this. I’m not sure where to start. I feel anxious, and worried that I might miss something really important.

Going on strike is more than annoying. I don’t want to let people down. I want to get on with doing my job to the best of my abilities. I want to support my colleagues and my students. I also want to support UCU negotiators, support the fight for better terms and conditions for academics who are just starting out in their career, and support the fight for gender and BAME pay equality. These are all good things to be fighting for.

This article was written for the March edition of Snowball, the newsletter for associate lecturers at the OU

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Decolonising the curriculum in our distance learning environment

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On 21 March 2019 I attended a seminar that was co-organised by UCU, the University and College Union, and the university BME (black and minority ethnicity) staff network. 

I attended for a couple of reasons: firstly, I'm broadly interested in diversity having carried out research into technology and accessibility and have a hidden disability, and secondly, one of my colleagues, Mustafa Ali, was going to be giving a talk. It turns out that Mustafa couldn’t make it to the talk, but what follows is a summary of some of the key things that I took away from the event

HE sector perspectives on decolonising the curriculum

Aravinda Guntpalli, Senior Lecturer in public health defined the term decolonisation as “freeing a country from being dependent on another country”. This could be understood in terms of political, social and economic dependence. Another comment I noted was that terminology and language has a legacy which imposes a particular view about how the world works.

Aravinda’s talk also included some statistics: in the OU, only 10% of students are BME.  It’s important to note that there is a significant attainment gap between white students and BME students.

Towards the end of her presentation, we were introduced to the history of the decolonising the curriculum movement, which has its root in the Rhodes must fall campaign (Wordpress) in 2015.  There was also a reference to a UCL campaign called: why is my curriculum white? (NUS website)

I made a few notes during the Q&A session. A question that I noted down was: ‘how can we decolonise?’ A response that I recorded was that it’s necessary to consider the process of teaching, the materials that we use to teach, and the learning environment that we establish. The voices that are exposed and valued can and will differ between subjects. It is important to consider which voices are exposed.

Reflections

The most striking point that I took away from the session was the extent of the attainment gap between white students and BME students. (I’ve asked Aravinda for an official reference; I’ll update this blog when I’ve done a bit more reading and research).

I found the history of the Rhodes must fall campaign interesting. As I was listening I remembered attending a widening participation conference some year back, which I wrote a couple of blogs about: Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference blog of day 1, blog of day 2.

I remembered something about the co-creation of curriculum, a collaboration between students and a lecturer at Kingston University. This was something that I summarised briefly in the penultimate paragraph of the blog about the first day of the conference. I then had a thought: this whole subject, of relevance and potential bias within materials has a history that obviously goes back a lot further than the events of 2014.

I attended this UCU seminar after attending another seminar in the school of computing and communications. My colleague, Michel Wermelinger had been giving a talk about one of the fundamentals of computer science: algorithms. During a part of the talk, he shared a case of where a Google algorithm was misclassifying images and producing results that were considered to be deeply offensive. A popular article, entitled: Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses (The Guardian, 2017), presents a number of case studies.

I once had a call with a student who said something that was both a comment and a challenge. He said: “all the module materials are written by white people”. I started to mentally work through all the names of the academics that I knew who had worked on the module that we were discussing. I had to agree with him. He did have a point. I also understood that although computers are mathematical machines, algorithms are created by people and are fed with data, which are also chosen and created by people. Bias has the potential to affect all disciplines.

When we were into the Q&A session and delegates were discussing what we might be able to do, my mind wandered to the module that I’m currently studying (or, should I say, trying to study!): EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy. A question that came to mind was: was that module doing anything to consider different context? I then remembered that it had a whole series of case studies from different contexts: from England, from Singapore, from South Africa and from India. Differences in practices and perspectives were being exposed to learners so they could think about how they related to (and differed from) their own contexts. One view of difference and diversity is that is can be a constructive and a critical tool, from where we can understand and appreciate different perspectives.

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I’ve voted

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Oct 2015, 12:25

I remember the 2002 and 2003 fire fighter strikes. I remember it not because I was involved in it, or knew anyone who was a fire fighter; I remember it because of the opinions I held about it. I thought they shouldn’t be striking: I felt that their call for a thirty nine percent increase in pay was ridiculous, and they shouldn’t be holding the country to ransom. I also remember being confused: how did it get that bad? Surely the employer and the unions should have been talking about things before they got to the point of strikes?

I’m writing this blog after having just voted in a union ballot about industrial action in response to university plans to close seven out of nine regional centres. I voted in favour of industrial action, and this blog is about why.

A bit of background

It took me a long time to make a decision about joining UCU, the university lecturers union. I would even say that I agonised over it. I think the reason why it took so long is that I have been historically grumpy about the ‘mischief’ that unions can cause. Being a Londoner, I’m occasionally grumpy about strikes held by the transport unions.

I really enjoy helping students. I love my job, and I love making a positive difference to those who, ultimately, I serve. I even (to a degree) enjoy the admin stuff that comes part and parcel of my role. It’s a real privilege and a pleasure to see students achieving. One of the best parts of my jobs is helping out at the London degree ceremonies. Another ‘best’ part of my job is working with such a great team of tutors who are all awesome people.

My thinking went along the lines of: ‘if I’ve chosen to work in higher education, and love it, then why on earth would I go on strike, when my actions would negatively impact those students who I ultimately want to serve?’

I joined UCU when the university decided, very quickly, to close down a regional centre; the very same regional centre where I was taught how to teach. That was an eye opener: if they could close down one regional centre pretty easily, then how about all the other regional centres?

Management decision

The university management state that the closures of regional centres will improve services to students since it will free up capital to employ more people to work in the remaining two centres. My view, which is informed by working ‘on the ground’ amongst people who make the university operate, is that the recommendations will negatively affect students.

This isn’t just speculation: this is a view that has been informed by witnessing the disruption and impact that the closure of one region has had on the university. The proposals that I’ve seen suggest that they’re going to close seven regions. This idea fills me with terror. The fundamental objection that I have about the plans is that they are incomplete. The plans only recommend closures; they do not contain any information about how the closures are to be achieved. 

A few weeks ago, I spoke up in a meeting and said, ‘I am an engineer, and this affects how I look at things; I like to understand how things work, and there is nothing in these plans that suggests how these changes are going be made’. I feel that I would be personally negligent, as an employee of the university if I didn’t raise concerns and add to the chorus of opposition that I am hearing from faculties.

Put another way, the university is putting public money at stake by forgetting a whole aspect of the picture: you don’t move your home to another country without first understanding whether it is possible to do so.  Plus, even if it is possible, you need to carefully figure out all your removal costs.

Here’s another view that builds on this ‘home moving’ metaphor: the plans that have been proposed puts the whole institution at risk by dismantling those important human connections, knowledge and links that have been built up over a considerable amount of time. Things work because of the connections that exist between people. New ways of working that have been set up will have to be dismantled and moved wholesale to a whole new place: either Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham.

Moving to a new home is difficult, especially if you don’t have a support structure. The proposals imply that everyone is moving everywhere at the same time, and they’re not going to have a support structure, and they’re going to lose the very people who know how to make things work.

The response to this concern has been simple: we will have more money to hire more people. The fact is that things are never that simple: it takes time to acquire institutional expertise and knowledge: it takes time to acquire the skills and knowledge to support students. From a practical perspective: it takes time to learn how to use the university’s IT systems, and it takes even longer to learn about how to deal with all the interesting exceptions that we invariably have to deal with.

Considering the practicalities

I need to interview people, help people, and develop people. People have to have their degree certificates checked. Students will, invariably, forget their ID cards when they go into examination centres.  Examination centres will need to be checked for their accessibility, and that they conform to university regulations. People will need to check the accessibility of tutorial venues. People will also have to respond quickly to last minute changes if one tutorial centre is flooded or closed. It will be significantly more difficult to offer important one to one support with students who have disabilities, or have meetings to help and encourage students.

The locations analysis recommendations do not consider any of these issues.

I’ll put it another way: I do my job by working closely with regional colleagues. The proposals suggest that these important relationships are to be dismembered, and I will be forced to interface with a student support 'call-centre' that will be staffed by new employees who be still learning how to do their job at exactly the same time that students will be starting new courses.

Perhaps I’m not party to the discussions, but no one seems to be discussing how things are going to work.

If the regional centres are to close, the support that I offer tutors and students would be substantially and irrevocably impoverished. My current role would become difficult, if not impossible,

The academic voice

On Wednesday 14 October, the university senate met. Senate is the academic body of the university and has representatives from all faculties. Colleagues tabled a motion that begins: ‘[the senate] advises the Council to reject the current recommendation … of the Locations Review on the grounds that it is operationally and reputationally very high risk and fails adequately to support the academic mission of the university’.

A UCU news item summarises the response: ‘The Senate, which represents the academic oversight of the institution voted by 41 to 31 to advise that the plans be rejected, with nine members abstaining, and called on the university to explore other options.’

Following senate, a message was circulated that implied that even though the ‘academic voice’ was considered, nothing would change: the 'plans' would still go ahead. Here is a key sentence: ‘VCE has decided to take the [locations analysis] recommendation forward to Council for resolution’. This, in my view, is unacceptable: management are just not listening.

The faculties represent departments, which then, of course, teach the subjects that students study. In a university, which is all about teaching, learning and research, the academics should be the first group of people that the university should listen to. Their voice should matter. If it is ignored, then we cease to be a university.

Summary

When I was new to the university in 2006, a student asked me, ‘are you taking industrial action?’ My student was worried about his tuition; he was coming to the end of the module that I was tutoring, and subsequently, the end of his degree.

My response was simple. It was: ‘no, I’m not striking; I don’t believe that the services given to students should be affected’.

I’ve voted for strike action for exactly the same reason, that: ‘I don’t believe that the services given to students should be affected’.

So far, concerns from staff and faculties appear to have fallen on deaf ears. This is not right. One thing is certain: this is not the university that I joined almost ten years ago. I haven’t voted because I want to, but because I feel morally obliged to do so: for the good of the staff, the university, and our students.

A quick note

I should say that all posts on this blog represent my own opinions and are not that of either the Open University, or UCU. In case you're interested, I've written another post called don't close our regional centres about all the great work that Open University regional centres do to support students.

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