Thursday, 13 July 2017

Ye Olde Annual 'Three Month Holiday' Post: special Adonis Edition

Every year, teachers and university lecturers are chaffed by friends and loved ones about their 'three month holiday'. Extrapolating from the sudden presence of children on the streets for 5-6 weeks, and dimly remembered long hazy undergraduate summers spent snorting marijuana and seeing Barclay James Harvest at the 100 Club (sub: check details?), they're under the impression that educators simply down tools in about mid-April, swan off to their agreeable second homes in Tuscany/the Hamptons, and read Iris Murdoch novels or translate Das Kapital into Serbian free verse.

This year, we have the added joy of an ermine-clad lord weighing in. You remember Andrew Adonis, don't you? That wonderful night in 1997 when after months of stump speeches and solid campaigning  he overturned a massive Tory majority in the constituency of…

Oh wait.

That was Stephen Twigg. Andrew Adonis was one of those white men in suits who went to a boarding school, then Oxford, did a short stint as a research fellow – having written a D.Phil on Politics and Aristocracy – and after a few years on the FT and the Observer, fortuitously found himself doing Politics amongst the Aristocracy courtesy of being made a Baron and a government minister by his fellow private-school/Oxford chum Tony Blair. It's almost as though sex, class and whiteness open the door to power and privilege…

So having never troubled himself to get elected to anything other than Oxford City Council, Andrew found himself in charge of education policy and landed with a permanent vote in the British legislature until he dies, and £300 per day just for turning up. Turning up, that is, on a schedule that makes his imagined university look positively Stakhanovite: roughly 130-145 days per year. Still, nice work if you can get it. But not the kind of lifestyle that entitles Andy to make comments like this:

My colleagues around the country have been slightly riled by this: the very best is a long, detailed exposition by Christina de Bellaigue, who knows the Oxford system inside out. Andy was a Junior Research Fellow in Oxford in the late 80s. Oxford wasn't representative of the HE section then (or now); a JRF was an untypical position with quite low formal expectations; HE was nowhere near as bureaucratised then as it is now; student numbers were much, much lower. And as Jonathan Healey of Oxford University points out, Dr Adonis's outputs were not exactly multi-volume works, despite being employed primarily as a research specialist.

One was a book based on his dissertation; the others are rather ephemeral – and not all peer-reviewed – to the point at which my research committee, at my not-even-in-the-league-tables HE institution, would be tutting and making pointed remarks about REF-ability.

Poor Baron Lord Doctor Adonis or however he's titled seems to have missed the expansion and bureaucratisation of higher education, despite having been the Father of Fees and the Minister for Academic Mayhem under New Labour. Many better academics than me are pointing out on Twitter that the '3 month holiday' is the period in which we: a) write new lectures for next year; b) get research done (the stuff that feeds into teaching and attracts funding, the only thing promotion and hiring panels give a stuff about; c; go through the results of every single student in the institution to work out whether they've passed or graduated this year; d) do the marking; e) do the resit marking; f) counsel students who've failed or just want to see us (79 appointments over the last month for me); present at conferences to make sure we're still current; examine other universities' courses to make sure they're up to scratch; attend administrative committees; sit on progression and results boards (2 in August in my case) and so on ad infinitum. And let's spare a thought for my colleagues on courses like nursing and medicine: while Andrew coped with 8 week terms, mine are 15 weeks long (with marking and prep in between) and health courses just carry on. Spare a thought too for all those hourly-paid and 10-month contract academics who produce the amazing new work required just to get a foot in the door, while not being paid for a single hour outside the classroom. No holiday pay, no pension, no lab space, no research hours, no payment for helping students outside the class: and still they get the books written. Like me, they will be judged on the quality of their research output, regardless of their working conditions or institutional structures. Was Lord Adonis measured and monitored in this way? I very much suspect not.

Although anecdotes aren't data, I thought I'd share my working situation with you. I'm pretty ordinary: I'm a course leader (which doesn't bring cash with it, just 150 hours to design and administer the whole damn thing). My contract theoretically divides 1597 hours p.a. between teaching, research, scholarly activity, administration and the rest. I counted up almost everything I do and found myself doing 2200 hours, and sent it off to the faculty committee so that they could take away some duties and make my workload conform to contract. Instead, they left every single duty on the sheet, but invented lower hourly tariffs. This year, they have decided that I can write a book – while being permanently present in my shared office of 14 people, and available to students at all times – in 30 hours. The fact is that all universities rely on academics and support staff putting in enormous amounts of unpaid and unrecorded labour simply because some of it pleasant and much of it will benefit the students that we care about. What's shocking is that they're happy to record some of it: while they've fiddled my workload data to falsify the stats, they've cheerfully left it significantly over the contracted hours because they know that I and my colleagues are too conscientious to leave work undone.

Despite my contract saying I'm entitled to 4 working weeks of 'unbroken' leave, boards are scheduled throughout August, and faculty events throughout September. Today I attended a research seminar and wrote a conference proposal; yesterday I assisted with a student writing skills event and wrote another proposal. The day before, I went to the Faculty Learning and Teaching Conference. Last week I attended two conferences and marked a lot of resits (more to come). I'm off next week to attend the board of another HEI in my role as an external examiner for two courses: before I get there I have to read all the essays submitted for 12 modules, if they ever arrive, then write a report about the teaching, the curriculum, the feedback and the courses' suitability. Then there are the PhD students who don't go away for three months either. We have a new VLE launching in September: before then, I've got to learn how to use it, transfer everything from the old one, and design new teaching methods utilising its whizzy new features – and that's in addition to writing an entirely new module (15 new lectures on 20 new texts, 15 new seminar designs, assembling primary materials), sorting rooming out and organising my subject's Welcome Week activities. I have a PhD to examine. We also have the Course Committee findings to address, an external examiner's report to which to respond, some troubling Equalities and Diversity committee statistics to look into, two literature festivals to help organise, the Estates Committee meetings to attend, school outreach events to do, journal articles to write, book research to do, grant applications to write and union members to advise – often about workload worries, unironically. Then there are the students, who work long, long hours in their own jobs and rely on us to be available to see them at any time – and we do, because we like them and want them to do well. Our teaching hours, by the way, are 9-9.

I get to work at 8 a.m. on many days, and leave 12 hours later. My boss is usually there before me and usually still there after I go home. My management's response – from their private offices and company limos – is to announce a crackdown because we're never there, and that those who choose to do their research at home are swinging the lead.

What's most pernicious about my managers and Andrew Adonis is their implication that academia is about 'product'. While he's a little disingenuous about his own output, he clearly only values what's tangible. He – and they – refuse to value the intangible work done. How can I demonstrate that I have made students think about new things in new ways? That I have in some small way changed their lives, my life, or my field of inquiry? Sure, there are cards and emails but I'm damned if I'll produce those as evidence. I could produce a paper a month and a new module per semester (actually I'll be introducing a new one in every semester for the next three years) but volume and quality are not the same thing, despite the efforts of REF, TEF and university managers – many of whom collect performance-related pay and credit when the metrics go in their favour, but are conspicuous by their absence when there's blame to be assigned.

I know, I know: plenty of people do longer hours in harder jobs for less pay, with more domineering and even less honest management surveillance. And yet I hope you understand why people go red and even cry when you say 'three-month holiday' to them with that cheesy grin. And to be very very clear: my students are not having a three-month holiday. All of them have jobs. More than I'd like are working full-time hours (i.e. 40 hours) while studying full-time too. During the summer break a lot of them work even more hours because they have families to support or huge debts. I continually nag them to take actual holidays for their own health, but for many it's just not possible. Surprisingly few of them have holiday homes in Chiantishire…

Lord Adonis is very much not one of them.

Postscript: Lord Adonis is also going to town on all those massively overpaid Vice-Chancellors and university executives. He is entirely right to do so and I support him on this every step of the way.

1 comment:

Phil said...

This is one of the posts that make me embarrassed about my own less than Stakhanovite working routines - unremunerated twelve-hour work days were one of the things that made me get out of the private sector in the first place. But I'll say this, since I've worked for my current university I've never yet taken my full holiday entitlement, or had two consecutive weeks away. Three months off? Can't see any prospect of that this side of retirement.