I’m a university lecturer at a former polytechnic. My work is made up of three parts: teaching (designing courses, materials, conducting seminars and one to one tutorials, marking); research (collaborating, publishing and presenting); and admin (pastoral care, as well as monitoring student attendance). So I’m either teaching in seminar rooms with up to 30 students, or in a lecture hall with 200 students, or in an office I share with 2 other lecturers. Before corona, I was spending 3 days on campus and 2 days working from home.
When all the corona stuff started happening, we were actually on a national strike about pay and casualisation. There are a few hundred members of the union at our university, and the strike seemed pretty solid in our branch. At that point, most of us were focused on the strike itself, so corona didn’t feature too much in our discussions at first. On the picket, I did raise the issue, asking colleagues if they thought universities would continue teaching if corona got worse, but I felt it wasn’t much of a live issue at that point – that was in mid-March. However, things changed quite rapidly. There was about a week in-between the strike finishing and the lockdown starting and in that week, a union demo was pulled for safety concerns. The union started calling for a shutdown, rather than remote learning, although this was pretty late in the day.
But even then, the management kept saying we should continue teaching face to face. They waited right up until the national lockdown before face to face teaching was stopped, maybe also because they were scared of being sued by the students. Their expectation was that we would immediately just start remote teaching, even though we hadn’t had any extra time to plan how this would actually work in practice. The union was telling teaching staff that we shouldn’t just start online teaching, that we shouldn’t put lectures online, that we should wait. But with management pressuring people to continue online, it was pretty chaotic and we were being tugged in two directions at the same time. Informal chats about how to organise our work were happening mostly within departments by email. The union were also sending out advice in relation to negotiations they were having with management about the move to remote working. Most of us did end up taking our teaching online, also maybe because we didn’t want the students to suffer more than they already had, what with teaching being suspended for the previous recent strike.
Initially there weren’t any resources to do this. IT workers were working flat out to try and aid us, which is also why the union was asking management for more time to get ourselves sorted. Things varied between teams and departments. Some departments went straight to live teaching, some just put presentation slides up for the students. Within our department, we decided to give ourselves some extra time to arrange how we were going to coordinate things, but there wasn’t too much of a delay. We used to have an email list that staff could use to communicate across the university, but that got closed down a few years ago which makes it harder to have informal discussions across departments remotely. In general, universities are pretty top-down in terms of decision-making. But departments do have their own cultures of working and things can vary depending on how many outspoken people ether are in that team, and also what the head of department is like. We have a department email list that is used a lot, especially to air grievances and discuss the situation amongst ourselves. The emails go to everyone, including the departmental management, which means that people who are on more insecure contracts are less likely to raise issues that way. It’s not the same as talking face to face though – especially as management are listening in!
There are lots of staff at the university who can’t work from home, including cleaners, catering and security staff. When the first lockdown happened, the university effectively shut down (including things like catering), and staff who could work at home were told to keep working, and staff who could not work from home, were told that they would be asked to work when needed. There was some flexibility in relation to people having to care for others or being vulnerable to corona.
The workload has gone up for sure. We had to reconfigure all our lessons to be taught online. All students had a blanket ‘mitigating circumstances’ which meant that they could all resubmit work if they wanted, which meant extra marking for us. This went right on into the summer, meaning we had less time to prepare for the next academic year. Now the new term has started, I’m working around 10 extra hours a week than my usual 37.5 hours. The union did manage to negotiate some extra hours for teaching in our ‘Workload Model’, which assigns a time to each task – but it still doesn’t really reflect how long it takes, which means we end up working more hours than we are paid for.
During the summer, management promised students that some face to face teaching would resume in the new term – which was a decision made purely by them, no doubt because they rely heavily on students turning up, paying their fees and renting university accommodation. We disagreed with this though. Another top-down decision was which modules would be taught, when and how long for. While the union agreed that it was still too dangerous to simply resume face to face teaching, management didn’t seem to be budging. In our department though, we decided to take our own course of action: staff teaching on face to face modules wrote a joint letter setting out the reasons why we didn’t think it was a good idea – the usual stuff like H&S and risk assessments, but also pedagogical reasons. Management ended up agreeing to our demand that all teaching in our department continues online, which was great! Why did they agree? I think because all the teaching staff had stuck together, and they knew our team would push back. I’m not sure if the union knows we managed to do this though, at least, they haven’t contacted us about it…
The university has suffered a lot in terms of student numbers – my university relied a lot on clearing to get students, but with the A level fiasco, that was more difficult. Still, we got an extra days holiday (even though this was in the middle of the marking season!). At the start of the academic year, we usually got a small pay increase, which didn’t happen this year.
The relationship with students has changed. You feel more like a ‘service provider’. Moving to the online world means you feel more like you’re just ‘providing content’ to students rather than actually teaching them. Saying that though, there has been a lot of common ground between students and teachers during corona, what with the added stress and pressures we’re under. Students have largely been supportive of us, as they were during the previous strike.
Not being in the same physical space as my co-workers changes things.There’s obviously less general collegial interactions. But on the flip-side, there have been more opportunities for people to participate because all our discussions now happen online. Attendance of the union branch meetings has increased. And we’ve been discussing how to support each other – with the extra work and our mental health, which has been really good. We managed to set up staff wellbeing meetings. The management haven’t provided any support in this regard, aside from signposting you to something on the website. In fact, the relationship with management has become even more distrustful after the strike and with their stance in relation to corona. They refused to renew loads of fractional/hourly paid contracts because of the university’s more precarious financial situation. This happened quite close to the start of teaching – staff on short term and zero-hour contracts are especially vulnerable when the university wants to save money as they just refuse to renew them, but can avoid looking like they’re ‘sacking’ people or reducing the number of staff. This has increased the workload even further onto the permanent staff. It also took them ages to acknowledge the fact that we have to teach from home at the same time as juggling childcare because all the nurseries had shut. There was some possibility to take a special kind of leave if you couldn’t manage, and in our teams we talked to each other about distributing work differently. It was a big problem for me because I also relied on grandparents for childcare which hasn’t been possible for ages now.
The union has been pretty good in terms of pushing health and safety and workload issues. The management are currently trying to restructure the IT department – despite the fact that they’ve been invaluable during corona and having to teach online. We have been on strike over it, and it seems like the students agree with the strike action as it’s so obviously a bad idea to sack IT staff when most of the teaching is online. The union is pretty active, and has been organising virtual picket lines, teachouts and meetings, some of which have had a couple of hundred people attending. The branch seems quite democratic locally – it’s quite easy to get involved and the leadership takes on board the views of the branch – a lot of things are decided in branch meetings, which as I said have been pretty well attended online.
What’s been better and worse during corona? I’ve spent more time with my child, and less time commuting. But the increased stress and uncertainty during this time has definitely affected my mental health. My kid is only in nursery part-time because it’s too expensive for full-time care. Me and my partner, who is also working from home have had to devise a schedule where we take it in turns. Before we did that, it was chaotic and unworkable.
Corona has been an opportunity for the university management to pursue a more blended learning model, which they’ve been wanting to do for a while now. I don’t think they’d want a fully online learning model, because a major draw of the university is its location. At the moment, I think they’ll carry on trying to push for more lectures being posted online, which is problematic because it makes them less reliant on staff, but will probably become harder and harder to resist. I think the online meetings will continue, and that virtual one to one tutorials with students will become more normalised practice.
There have been a lot of ongoing conversations about the handling of the pandemic and a lot of people I’ve spoken to at work are very angry. Management promising students stuff because they need to attract them in the marketed system is at odds with their needs as students and our needs as lecturers. The government insisting that universities opened created a dangerous situation for all those students moving to new places, and for the communities the universities are in. Making universities compete in a market means that it’s much harder for them to survive a situation like this. Some people are really worried about their future. At the same time, there have also been more conversations about having to enforce things ourselves because it’s obvious that management are trapped in their market mentality and the union have limited powers. Yes, they say we should use employment law (e.g. section 44), but this is made for individual use, rather than a collective one. I think we’ve come out stronger as a department because we had that victory about keeping modules online. We’re a bit more confident. Individually though, people are struggling. The current strike feels strong, but I think management are digging their heels in as they want sack people to save money.
In terms of wider stuff, I’ve been involved in my local mutual aid group, both receiving help, as well as trying to coordinate help for others. We’ve also set up a fund to help people financially, with shopping bills and stuff. I heard about a local cleaners strike at Lewisham hospital about lack of PPE. Black Lives Matter has also been a big thing in our university. Management have doing the usual PR stuff, but there’s been lots of solidarity actions and events to discuss racism within the university being organised by staff and students themselves. Many issues have been raised, stuff from racism within the management structures, the curriculum, staffing, the kinds of contracts we’re on, how certain staff are treated, the experiences of black students. There have also been a lot of academic discussions about the issues, about the relationships between race and gender and class. The union branch also held a memorial meeting for essential workers who had died of corona and we had a good discussion about H&S at work. That’s all been really good.
What else would I like to say? Well, I think the government wants universities like mine to close. They’re using corona as a way to close us down, without having to be blamed. It can simply be blamed on the pandemic and the market. You can say that this was always the logic behind marketing higher education. And secondly, I think corona was a missed opportunity to re-think how the university could be used. All these people found themselves unemployed or with more time on their hands – we could have opened up the university to give free courses for the general public, opening up education to more people. In a market system, this becomes impossible.