Three more strikes are planned for this term. These run February 14th, 18th, February 21st-22nd, and February 28th-March 2nd.
I am a student, but I am also a seminar leader. Teaching is something I love, and it is my number one priority to ensure that students gain confidence, have the proper pastoral care they need, and become enthused with their subject.
Last year, during the worst months of the pandemic, many of my 180 students underwent huge amounts of trauma relating to Covid-19, both physically and mentally. I did everything within my power to support them through these difficult times. The Hippocratic oath, which is traditionally applied to doctors of medicine, also applies as my general attitude towards teaching: “do no harm”. Thus, things must be acutely awful for me to support a strike, which will affect students negatively. The head of the UCU, Jo Grady, put it better than I ever could.
Studying for my PhD during a pandemic has presented its own set of challenges. We have a serious problem when it comes to supporting young academics at this University. When we cross the classroom, from students to teachers, the University’s duty of care seems to fall off the face of the Earth. In my entire time of teaching during the pandemic, I have not been offered any meaningful support, or been made aware of where to go for help. We had a short online training video to prepare us for our first ever time teaching students, and were then left more or less to our own devices. Many have been left feeling hopeless, isolated, and overwhelmed. As a postgraduate community, we have some amazing teaching talents but we have been left on our own to work out how to work everything out.
I am a member of a small army of postgraduate researchers, who teach on insecure, ‘casualised’ contracts. In the social sciences, only around 30% of PhDs are funded. As a self-funded PhD student, I am paid a tiny amount each month to educate around 90 students. I teach 6 seminars per fortnight. I am paid for one hour of preparation time — yes we really are expected to do all of the readings and preparation in one hour. I am paid nothing for the admin work, or pastoral work I frequently undertake.
The money I make pays half of my monthly rent, and I have to supplement this income with lots of other jobs. Last year I had 8 jobs in total, and 180 students as my responsibility in Durham. This issue is profound — PhD student Aimée Lê, of Royal Holloway, was forced to live in a tent whilst at the mercy of one of these hourly-paid contracts. She said to The Guardian:
“I think the students had every expectation I was receiving a salary for my work. I think that is what students everywhere assume: that we are lecturers on proper contracts”.
We aren’t. In the social sciences, the majority of us are paying the University more a year in tuition fees than we earn a year in salary.
The University still have a chance to stop the strikes. They can ensure that they use their money to pay staff properly, and advocate for a halt on the pension-cut awaiting full-time academics. They can ensure proper training, access to materials, and mental health services for young academics.
Teachers are just as much human beings as students, and, in order for them to be able to do their job, they need to be treated as such.
No doubt, the ruling class of the University will do none of these things. They will continue to treat this once-great University as a cold, hard, business. The National Union of Students has provided their solidarity. The only way we can ensure a fulfilling teaching and learning environment for all is to work together.
Students are going to be hit in the short-term by this, and the University should do everything it can to try and support them, especially finalists. Finalists will be able to speak to their dissertation supervisors during the non-striking working days in February, and it would be my advice to make sure they make the most of these opportunities. Extra leniency on extensions should also be instigated as a University-wide policy for all year groups.
Education is such a wonderful thing, but this University is determined to suck the life and soul out of it. We have to unite to stop them.
Illustration: Elle Fitzgerald