Dear University Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors and Senior Management
I am an academic, someone who has spent their whole life dedicated to their discipline, someone who has worked hard to provide excellence in teaching, excellence in research and to inspire people and challenge the taken for granted. I love what I do. Universities have always been institutions of knowledge, insight and forward thinking, they were always unique and wonderful places to work. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. I urge you to read this letter with an open mind, remembering back to the days you were a student and consider what the UCU strikes really mean.
The current UCU strikes were forced upon university academic and professional services staff. Hundreds of thousands of staff have sacrificed large proportions of their monthly salary to ensure they have financial security in the future and this is now nothing more than an uncertainty. But the UCU strikes are more than just about pensions, this nationwide strike is a response to the ill treatment and unfair working conditions of many staff across the country. I cannot speak on behalf of professional services but I can speak on behalf of friends and colleagues who continually share their concerns about the academy.
Let me first raise the issue of workloads. Over the years academic staff have seen their workloads dramatically increase. Lectures, readers and professors are expected to design and delivery teaching, assess and reassess assignments and exams, be personal tutors, be advisors, be examiners and be administrators. This teaching aspect of the job requires staff to meet performance measures, ensuring progression, employability, student satisfaction and excellent grades. A point to which I will return. On top of that academic staff are to be researchers, writers, speakers, grant winning scholars and international experts. As staff move up the career ladder the expectations increase ever more, with academics expected to be on committees, chairing professional bodies and acting as consultants. Please read this long list of requirements again and ask yourself, is this fair? How is any person in a 5 working day week expected to achieve all of these? Where does work-life balance come into this? I dare you to ask your academic staff how many of them work nights and weekends, how many spend their “annual leave” trying to produce scholarly outputs? Then ask yourself, are you asking too much? It is no wonder that the proportion of academic staff going on sick leave, seeking support with work related stress and battling mental illness is increasing. The amount of stress and strain universities put academic staff under is frankly appalling. I don’t accept the response of ‘this is just the nature of the job’, no career should require that many roles and responsibilities and it doesn’t have to be like this.
The UCU strike is about more than just money, it is about respect. Respect the people who have worked for decades to master their craft, worked years to become the best educators they can and sacrificed their personal lives, family and friends, to ensure your universities remain high on the league tables. Your REF and TEF status comes from those who work tirelessly to be the best they can. Your whole institutions are built on the foundations of the academics and professional services staff who turn up for work every day. Please do not forget that. Reward staff with manageable workloads and realistic expectations. Invest in employing more staff, not on fancy architecture or best rated coffee machines. It is people who make a university great, not the furnishings.
Please remember what the purpose of a university is. It is not a corporate business and that is key here. Universities are institutions of knowledge and inspiration. They offer a future for the next generation’s brilliant minds. They enable students to find their own path through freedom of speech, challenging of ideas and making their own discoveries. Students want to be inspired, they want to learn and apply, that is why they go to university. But to offer this, universities need to give academics time to think, time to breathe, and time to develop. Excellent teaching isn’t about throwing a lecture together in a day or teaching five hours in a row. Excellence comes from spending time with students and offering students opportunities that go beyond the classroom walls. Time is something that has been forgotten, something that has been lost in the modern bureaucratic university. Now it is all about efficiency, policy making and micro-management. Strategic plans are created without consultation with the people who deliver them. Committees discuss budget cuts and money saving strategies, but a university is and should be about investment. Investing in the students, investing in the staff, that’s what a university should be doing. It astounds me that these basic principles have been lost.
Allow me to point out one of many problems over recent years, which is, increasing student numbers. Increasing student numbers whilst decreasing staff numbers is illogical and detrimental to your institution. Do you want your university to be known for overworked academics, who can’t spend the quality time with students that is needed to offer an excellent education? Students want lecturers who come to their class enthused, not exhausted. Students want staff who can spend time with them, not trying to squeeze a 15 minute meeting in between their other commitments. The capitalist nature of many universities has resulted in competition to attract students, and with this competition leads to a somewhat open door policy. The approach of many, not all, institutions is to offer places on courses as long as they can pay the fees and academic integrity has in some cases disappeared. It is unfair to allow students to rack up thousands of pounds worth of debt when they are not ready to undertake a degree. It is selfish to offer a place on a course that a student will most likely fail. But, staff are asked to take responsibility, ensure students pass, ensure they progress and on top of this, ensure they go on to further study or graduate careers. Academic staff should not be held responsible for such measures. Shifting the responsibility of performance measures onto academic staff, who are just trying to do their best, is cruel, it is demoralising, and it adds to the burdening workload. Students’ love and knowledge for a subject area isn’t measured on their job after university, it measured by their outlook on life.
This corporate greed goes further when examining doctoral students. How many doctoral students come through your doors each year with the dream of an academic job? And how many of them are given the opportunity to fulfil that dream on completion of their PhD? Can you honestly say that your institutions invest in doctoral students by offering them employment opportunities beyond just picking up the excess teaching loads? What sort of future is there for young academics? A very bleak one, where staff are not rewarded through pay and pension. A future that, if nothing changes, will see more brilliant minds leave the academy, more staff being over worked, and more students being left disgruntled.
I ask of you, to take a hard look at your university and consider what sort of place you want it to be. What does a university mean to you? If you support the strike and support your staff, then you are supporting change. We need senior managers and vice chancellors like yourself to stand up and make the change. Acknowledge the failures of the past and do your upmost to build a better future. Please read your mission and values, then ask yourself, how much of that is a reality?
Thank you for reading.
The Blogging Criminologist.