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Adventures of a staff tutor: On the role of unions

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 11 Jan 2023, 15:02

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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