As the UCU have been arguing for a long time, universities are already riddled with poor casual work practice. Research in particular is sustained by low paid insecurely contracted staff (see this blogpost). One tweet during the strike mentioned a passer-by's incredulity when it was explained to him that a group of science researchers looking into cures for a range of devastating illnesses were all employed on low paid insecure contracts. 

Teaching is not far behind, with postgraduate students scrabbling for hourly paid work, even though this only pays for the actual hour they are with students, not for any of the substantial preparation time needed. We are supposed to be gearing students up for better jobs - while on immiserating contracts ourselves. 

As so often, the Open University is well ahead of the curve here. Our teaching has historically been delivered on short term contracts, which have only gradually had some working rights attached to them. Our contracts are 'casualised' rather than casual. It looks like things may get better for us, but for the sake of those in traditional universities who wonder what casualised work might mean, I will explain. (NB teaching at the Open University is unlike that in traditional universities. A permanent academic team put together teaching materials with a highly qualified but casualised set of Associate Lecturers supporting student engagement through blended learning.) 

It is very difficult to deliver high quality teaching on a casual contract, and next to impossible to do this if you have to write the lectures as well. I have done that too - staying up til 3 am to write a lecture which I would deliver the next day, unable to give the students reading material until the day of the lecture because I was writing it the night before. Then the following year throwing all those lectures in the bin and writing a fresh set on a completely different subject. I wasn't needed to deliver the first set of lectures any more, but had found yet another short term contract to do something else which I always hoped would turn into a secure job. Every contract ended in praise and congratulations, never in secure work. It took me a long time to realise that for that, I ought to have spent as little time as possible on my teaching (or the public policy research I was also doing) and focussed on polishing abstruse research publications. 

Recently things at the Open University have improved. Previously, I used to get a redundancy notice a few months before teaching was due to start, followed by a surreptitious email from line managers telling me in vague legally restricted phrases not to worry too much. A couple of weeks before the allocation of student groups, I would suddenly get definite confirmation that I had the work.

One year I was hurriedly phoned up and verbally appointed two weeks before the start of a postgraduate module. I had to learn all the materials myself as quickly as I could, keeping just ahead of the students and constantly asking supportive colleagues (who were not paid for the kind help they gave me) 'stupid' questions about the assignments so as to be prepared to explain them to the students. I did not know if I would still be wanted the next year, so it was hard to motivate myself and carry on working on that module once the teaching had finished. 

I have colleagues who take on temporary management contracts in hopes of getting into a more permanent position via that route. They can't let their teaching go in case the management post doesn't become permanent. They are working themselves into the ground, but can hardly be expected to deliver as effectively on the quadruple hours they are having to put in. 

Because our contracts are strictly limited to the teaching period, we can't be asked to contribute to feedback and development of the module to improve it for the next year's teaching until a few days before it goes live. A clause has had to be inserted to say that for the month before the module starts, we should do some work towards it without receiving pay. I have sometimes struggled to find the money to travel to teach, because I haven't yet been paid for the teaching. 

Even as I write this post, I'm thinking I want to do two big loads of marking work I have got in hand, check over my slides for a tutorial I'm giving on Monday - but that maybe I should prioritise applying for a new teaching contract which has just been advertised. It's not in an area I particularly want to teach, but I can't afford not to try for it. 

I am a single working mum. The many disadvantages of casualised work have a big impact on my family life. The hugely variable monthly income (some months my pay is double what I get in other months) makes it difficult to budget and plan. From year to year, I am never quite sure what work I will have in hand. At one point, I feared I would have no work for six months of the year, yet be unable to claim any benefits or tax credits because I would have a potential upcoming contract for six months' time so be deemed to be making myself unavailable for work. When I was looking to buy a home, no bank would give me even the tiny mortgage of £5-10K I was looking for - they all said my contracts were too insecure. 

The National Director of Relate Cymru recently appealed to Welsh Government to review support for children's mental health. He linked rising demand for mental health support from children and young people to difficult family lives. The effect on my own family of my stressful contractual situation has been very severe. We lived for a long time with a sense of impending doom, fearing that at very short notice our means of living could be almost entirely snatched away. Ironically (yes, my teaching is so full of irony that I ought to set up a laundry!), my module materials include a film about people accessing a food bank near my home - which I have sometimes thought I might have to go and get food from myself. 

I did say the Open University is often ahead of the curve. They have been in negotiations for ten years to move Associate Lecturers like myself onto permanent contracts. These negotiations had foundered, and when he arrived at the university our Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks made them a priority. As well as negotiating over pensions, the Open University union branch and the university have continued to work on this as well as other major issues of employment and working conditions. The last announcement was that they still hope we will get our permanent contracts this summer. 

This may be a Pyrrhic victory. Proposals are being put forward to slash our contact hours with students and restrict us to giving them written marking feedback. More on why the union and ourselves feel this would spell the end of the Open University soon. First I want to talk about support staff and the way we in the Open University work as a team to deliver student learning. And before that, I thought I would talk about why this could be the best job in the world. 


Tags: ucu, strike action, neo-liberal approach to education, equalities, casual work
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The neo-liberal approach

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Mar 2018, 10:11

Ironically, the strike action I'm taking against neo-liberal management of education impacts on a module I teach that critiques the neo-liberal approach to education (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice.)

A concept which we encourage students to define and use on this module is 'discourse'. I find this helpful in understanding how management can continue to blithely pursue patently absurd neo-liberal policies in spite of the cries of anguish from those of us who have to try to deliver learning across instead of along these lines.

'Discourse' (drawing on Michel Foucault's work) is the idea that society is set up in certain ways (along lines of power), so only some thinking has legitimate expression. We have to speak up within discourse, but at the same time we are always creating it so it does shift. A dramatic example of shift in discourse is #MeToo and #TimesUp. Women have been protesting the way in which men treat us for centuries - famously in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - first published in 1792. We have frequently and infamously been ignored in spite of widespread anger and scorn, vociferously expressed by Second Wave feminist activists highlighting unreasonable excuses blaming women for our own harassment. It's not until a final shift of power in 'discourse' that these protests can get heard and taken seriously. (The earlier work against abusive power in 'discourse' is of course fundamental in building up to that shift.) 

As academics, we devoutly hope that our protest against the pensions proposals put to us can prove such a shift against the neo-liberal approach to education (marketisation). 

Screenshot of letter to The Times from VC of Cambridge University

Screenshot of letter

We all hope that this shift can take place before the final neo-liberal absurdity of the current Minister for Higher Education's proposal to rank degrees according to how much graduates from them earn. (This is all the more stupid because there is an inbuilt ranking measure in degrees already. How many students graduate from the degree with a good pass mark indicates how much they have learnt and therefore how good a degree it is. Res ipsa loquitur, as Captain Jack Sparrow puts it. NB, Minister - socio-economic deprivation should be considered as a factor in this measure.) 

Article by Guardian writer Suzanne Moore. 

Screenshot of article by Suzanne Moore 'Only the truly ignorant would rank universities according to graduate earnings' 

On EE814, we draw on the writing of Michael Apple (2006a, 2006b - this one is very short, 1990) and a key article by Olssen and Peters (2007) which looks at neo-liberalism in Higher Education. (My DD102 and DD103 students will be interested to hear that Olssen and Peters use the thinking of Hayek and Stiglitz, among others, in their article - two economics thinkers we explore on those modules as well.) 

Basically, the neo-liberal approach to education treats education like a marketplace. It argues that the customer is always right and that we should tailor our education provision to demand. If the students want modules on postfeminist needlework, then we should supply those. (Warning - that last link goes to a highly satirical site with material some may find offensive.) Academic teaching staff have been vociferous in condemning the considerable recent emphasis put on student satisfaction surveys. These are likely to reward charismatic individuals rather than rigorous teaching design making students work hard to achieve more highly. I have heard of staff chastised for poor results in a student satisfaction survey, while the same student cohort were walking away with many more First degree grades than their peers on comparable courses. 

Secondly, the neo-liberal approach to education assumes that students come to learn in order to move straight into gainful employment. Gainful to the economy that is, not gainful in the sense of being satisfying to them in any spiritual way or contributing to society in other ways than economic. Hence, the assumption by the Minister for Higher Education that measuring degrees by eventual income is a good way to go. I get routinely asked what employability skills students gain on EE814. As this is a postgraduate education module, many of my students are already employed as teachers - the idea that they might want to improve their teaching skills while in post doesn't seem to enter into the neo-liberal equation. (Some of us refuse to answer stupid questions like these about our courses, except by sending back long and dull diatribes about neo-liberalism.) 

Thirdly, the neo-liberal management of education seems to need a lot of form-filling and oversight. In all areas of public sector work (police, schools education, NHS) we hear about spending time accounting for the time we would rather be spending doing our work. There is a complete lack of trust of workers in delivering on basic tasks. Nor is there any interest in supporting us as workers. This vast array of performance indicators is not designed to identify training needs or help build our skillbase. Nor have I ever heard of an academic staff member identified as not delivering appropriately and sacked because of performance indicators. Promotions, too, happen in a structure that appears to be outwith these mundane performance measurements. It's not very clear what use they are being put to. 

One aspect of marketisation of Higher Education seems to be the trend for expensive and beautiful new buildings. Some are saying that the reason Universities UK want the pension scheme set up on different grounds, is that the way it's currently set up is regarded as a liability by banks who would lend them more money if the pension scheme could be accounted for in a different way. (It seems that bankers have a pretty weird 'discourse' going on too.) But why do universities want all these new buildings? many not suitable for teaching or research purposes? Is it just because buildings as 'stock' add to monetary value and this is seen as the best, most business-like way to manage our colleges and universities? 

Although many of Cardiff University's new buildings are for research purposes, they are promoted here in business terms. They include an Innovation Centre: "Providing companies with the resources and support to encourage growth with confidence." Any educational aspect of this project is lost in the account of it. 

Architects' drawing of several new buildings

I could go on, but I will just reproduce this page (p.327) from Olssen and Peters which seems particularly pertinent, and let you read the rest of their article yourselves. 

Screenshot of p.327 of Olssen and Peters article

References

Apple, M. (1990) Ideology and Curriculum, Hove, Psychology Press

Apple, M.W. (2006a) Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality, New York, Routledge.

Apple, M. (2006b) ‘Understanding and Interpreting Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism in Education’, Pedagogies: an International Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 21–5.

Mark Olssen & Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

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Terms and conditions

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 18 Mar 2018, 17:03

In my previous blogpost I began listing some of the problems which face academics - as well as being asked to swap a 24 carat secure pension for a chocolate teapot because a) USS can't do sums properly and only a few years after assuring us it was very secure, have found a huge hole in it, or b) USS can't do sums properly and failed to predict there would be this huge hole only a few years ago.

Here I look at some life-work (im)balance issues in academic work. Next I'll give a quick overview of 'neo-liberalism' in education, before looking at casualisation and how this undermines academic performance. 

Universities risk their reputations by failing to value teaching staff. This FT article pointed to the business case for treating staff properly. It identified poor pay as well as poor working conditions as problems, and expressed no surprise that when our pensions came under attack, we finally walked out on strike. 

Poster with long list of issues: Research Underfunded, Teaching Overstretched ...

(On UCU Facebook page.) 

One estimate shows 40 million hours of public work contributed by UK university staff in 2015/16. 

Ring chart showing different areas of work university staff freely contribute

(From twitter post)

This willingness to contribute freely to society is worth noting, given that academic pay has persistently slipped in real terms over the years. Academics are not in the business for the money. 

The figures here don't include the overtime teaching and research which staff routinely put in. (Support staff too, I bet.) People sometimes ask me, "Why do you do a part-time job, Anita? A part-time job is full time hours on part time pay." I say: "Yes, but a full-time job is time and a half. I can juggle full time hours and being a mum, but not time and a half." Full time teaching and research staff routinely work 60, 70 or 80 hour weeks - stumbling home late and exhausted. 

In this blogpost, an early career researcher talks about the debilitating culture of over-work and the impact she sees it have on herself and her colleagues. This can be particularly damaging in early career contracts of the kind Grace Krause is working on. Typically short-term and aimed at conducting a project as cheaply as possible instead of supporting junior academic staff into a career, these are desperately sought after by PhD students anxious to get onto the jobs ladder in universities. Grace describes how she was brow-beaten into accepting lower pay for work she had already done when the budget on the project she was working on proved not to have been properly costed. 

My first job after my PhD was on a one year research project funded on a small grants scheme by the Economic and Social Research Council - which was aimed at kick-starting research in new fields. I travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to conduct interviews with a highly vulnerable community with whom I also had to secure trust and access (in just one year). In order to squeeze my salary out of the tiny budget, I was first put on a six month 'probation' so that I could be paid below the required legal amount. Desperate to get this highly regarded work onto my CV, I ended the project in considerable debt. There was no time to write follow-up applications and continue the work after the project, while also making sure I delivered it effectively and so it has sat on my CV in splendid isolation ever since. 

It seems we are no longer human beings, deserving of quality of life either at work or at home. We are not expected to want time to spend with family, friends - or on the public work we contribute willingly.

I am a School Governor. An expert on education and social inclusion, I want to put myself forward to be a Governor at more schools, in deprived areas which struggle to get people onto the Board. But even though I have a part-time job, I have no time to do this. 

I am really envious of the teachers at my school when the Head reports back on the training and support they get: INSET days to come together and discuss how to teach well, secondments to work with government on developing partnership programmes with other schools to disseminate best practice. If they are ill, a supply teacher is found to take their classes. Does anyone wonder why there are no 'supply' lecturers? If there is a system for colleagues to take over lectures when we are absolutely unable to get in to give them, it's an informal one between colleagues. We are made to feel guilty if we can't stagger in to sneeze and cough germs over our students. I have heard women uneasily boasting that they gave lectures with a sick child in a pushchair alongside them. That is not bad parenting - it's inhumane employer pressure and lack of management. How are they hoist on their own petard, if managers were in the habit of employing hourly paid lecturers to come in when permanent staff were ill - they might have been able to use them in this strike! 

One of the most fiercely protested parts of the proposal which came out of the ACAS talks between UCU and UUK was that, in return for lower paid junior staff not having strike pay deducted, staff might consider re-scheduling lectures which had been missed in the strike - without being paid ourselves. Some respondents were clearly close to breaking point as they wrote demanding how they could be expected to squeeze these into lecture schedules densely packed with contact hour teaching. The inclusion of this suggestion demonstrates how far removed the employers are from the intense overload of work at the teaching coalface. 

Academic staff are like parts in a machine, uneasily made to feel we are replaceable. If we won't work the insane hours which have become normal, our colleague in the next office will overtake us on the fast track. Someone-else can be found - new, eager to show willing - and slotted in to deliver. A neo-liberal system pits us against each other, working us into the ground for short-term outcomes in teaching or research. As academics, we continue to struggle to provide education and research dissemination in many ways outside the classroom. Very few of us ever bought into the neo-liberal approach to education. We know that education - whether developed through lecturing or research - is a 'good' that is more valuable when it's not being sold. 

Striking worker in snowstorm with sign saying 'Academia is for life not just for business'.

(From twitter post: https://twitter.com/DrAdrianBlau/status/968830454563557377)

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The ongoing strike for a pension

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 16 Mar 2018, 09:36

This fourth week of industrial action, we are striking for five days. I outlined in my previous blogpost some of the issues in the pensions dispute. I outline some more here, and list other issues academics are concerned about, which I hope to write further blogposts about. I have wanted to write about some of these issues for a long time, but have only just managed to clear space on my teaching desktop. (As I am supposedly on part-time hours that in itself says something about my workload.) 

During this strike, membership of our union (Universities and Colleges Union, or UCU) has doubled and visible presence on the picket line has grown every day of the strike. 

A recent proposed offer by our employer (Universities UK, or UUK) was rejected in the most emphatic terms by every single branch of the UCU at universities taking part in the strike action. The terms of the offer led to emotional outbursts on Twitter and Facebook, with anger particularly strongly expressed at a suggestion that staff could reschedule missed lectures - without receiving back strike pay. 

The attempt to redefine our pension fund was a blatant and inhumane attack on our rights as workers. It is the last of many straws. During the strike, much was written about the neoliberal approach to education in which degree-level studies have been comprehensively commodified. Academics on strike and mainstream media commented on: 

Here at the Open University, our student learning has always been provided differently to the way learning is supported in traditional universities, and our students tend to be mature students from economically poorer backgrounds. Many of my students are mums of young families, and working as well as studying.

I wasn't very good at striking, I'm afraid! I tried hard to make sure my students weren't too badly affected by my being out on strike. I know how hard they have struggled to get to study. Often lacking in confidence, happening to start studying just when we go on strike is the sort of thing that my students can feel is directed at them personally by a force outside of society. "You have the cheek to think you can study and improve your life? Take that then!" My students are often themselves in insecure work with poor pay and no pension provision. They are studying to get out of this situation, so they are generally sympathetic to our cause. (I had many messages of support from my students, who were very patient when I couldn't fully support them as I would ideally want to.) 

Like other academics, I am worried about more than my pension. I took strike action partly to highlight how riven with problems the whole Higher Education sector has become. 

Many of the issues which staff at other universities fear may affect their ability to teach well are already confronting us at the Open University. At the same time as co-ordinating strike action in support of secure pension provision, our union branch is: 

Pensions and the Phantom Deficit

A pension is not a perk. It's 'deferred salary'. I have paid some of my own salary into a pension fund, and my employer agreed to pay some more so that I could collect this part of my salary when I retire.

A number of economists and statisticians have comprehensively demonstrated that there is no credible evidence of a deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Back in November 2017, Dennis Leach, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Warwick showed that the USS pension scheme is not in crisis and it is not in deficit. There is no justification for massive pension cuts or gambling on defined contributions: https://henrytapper.com/2017/11/25/is-the-uss-really-in-crisis/

So secure was the fund that in the 1990s, it was judged over-funded and employers took a 'contributions holiday' - paying less into the fund. Some argue that this sum alone is more than enough to cover the Phantom Deficit. 

Protestors at a rally, one dressed as Darth Vader, another holiding a sign about 'The Phantom Deficit'.

(Photo from Tweet: https://twitter.com/EdGarethPoole/status/971702270286057472

The valuation of the fund as being in deficit seems to have been partly influenced by the UK government's Pensions Regulator. For this and many other reasons, it looks like the government ought to be taking part in the negotiations - lending support to those of us who may be very badly affected by the changes being proposed. We have had excellent support throughout from the Leader of the Opposition. 

(Link to tweet: https://twitter.com/jeremycorbyn/status/974213079008514048


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Striking for Pension Rights

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 12 Feb 2018, 17:35

In the upcoming weeks, I and my colleagues in the Universities and Colleges Union will be striking for the right to a fair pension. Proposals are being put forward which ask us to put far more personal contributions into our pensions, and to invest that money in much riskier funds.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, the universities as employers and the Union have been unable to come to an agreement and although the Union has offered to go to ACAS to resolve the matter, the other parties are not willing to do this. I believe that the government should intervene. Working in Higher Education, we are public sector workers. We provide the education support for the skilled workforce in the UK today. Many people we depend on in society: lawyers, doctors, physiotherapists, even MPs, have been trained by those of us working in universities. 

I call on my students who are affected, to write to their MPs - and here in Wales, their Assembly Members too - and ask for support in this matter. 

I see that the situation is not easy for any of these parties, but it is grossly unfair for Higher Education staff to have to bear the brunt of decisions about our pensions being made without our consent and against our interests. We have already seen our salaries sink dramatically in real terms as against other professionals, and a secure pension in our old age is not much to ask in return for the dedicated support we provide to our students. 

We are all reluctant to see an impact on our students, and I feel particularly unhappy about any effect my action might have in the Open University, where students are often from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds, lacking self-confidence and anxious about doing degree level studies. However I feel very strongly about pension rights. We have already seen large private pension funds like the ones for Tata Steel Workers run into difficulties, and I am highly concerned that our pension - which until a couple of years ago was regarded as a very desirable pension package to be part of - appears to be in sudden danger of going aground. 

The USS is in such difficulties that it has been hitting the front page of the Financial Times, where writers have pointed to the way that the value of its investments have sunk after these were taken over by an in-house team, instead of out-house fund managers. That we should be asked to continue to trust a team which has already made less successful investment decisions, who are proposing an even riskier investment strategy, is deeply worrying.

I have also heard it said that some of these investment changes were made because of recommendations by the Pensions Regulator. If this is the case, government has a duty to explain to us why this was done. 

The universities as employers say they won't be able to make up contributions for us into the fund. Some of us suspect this strike is also being viewed as an opportunity by hawkish employers to break the union, and get rid of national pay scales. This means of reducing costs of university fees by introducing cheaper, local and perhaps casual contracts for lecturing staff will only end in poor quality degrees in UK universities. There is already a motion in parliament calling attention to the significant problems for academic staff caused by zero hour and casualised contracts in universities. This situation should be looked at to improve our working conditions, and therefore the quality of teaching we can offer, not to worsen them. 

Universities are in a tough place. Brexit has meant not only that we lost access to European research funding, but also to many European students who used to come to study in the UK. The call for lower tuition fees does not take into account that those fees don't even now cover the full costs of delivering a good quality degree. (NB It's having to borrow for maintenance costs that puts student debt up so high, not tuition fees.) Universities have tried to square the circle by supplementing domestic student fees with higher overseas student fees, but crackdowns on immigration have always made this difficult. 

I have a very small pension myself. For the whole of my working life, I have been on fixed term and casualised contracts, and much of my life I have been a mum on part-time work. I am still working on a set of small contracts, with a variable income and a child to support. Losing strike pay will hit me hard, so you can see how seriously I take this issue.

My small pension is vitally important in securing decent provision for me as I get older. However if I am asked to contribute much more into it, I will have to cease paying into a workplace pension. I am already struggling to keep my daughter in decent school shoes, while maintaining and replacing my own computing equipment - absolutely necessary in order to do my job - and keeping up many other necessities of life. Like many women, my pension is going to go down the list of priorities if the price of it rises much further, even though I value the additional contributions made into my pension fund by my employer. 

Employer contributions to a pension will be of no use if the pension fund is invested in something so risky that I never get it in the end. 

If others like myself lose confidence and pull out of the USS, it will fail as a pension fund. 

This will be catastrophic not only for those in Higher Education who depend on that fund, but for confidence in the pensions industry. We all need a pension to support us in our old age and successive governments are increasingly anxious about those of us (many women) who have not been able to take out a private or workplace pension to support ourselves as we get older. 

For that reason too, I would call on the government to look very closely at this situation, and make sure that we in Higher Education get our fair rights to a decent pension, which we work so hard towards. 


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