Working lives: Being a lecturer

Working lives: Being a lecturer

I am in my 20th year as a Senior Social Sciences Lecturer in a northern post 1992 university otherwise known as one of the old Polytechnics. I love it, that is to say I love the work of teaching.  I fought to get to college/university and as a working class girl in the 1970’s there was no expectation that I would.  When I managed to get there I met and mixed with middle class young people for the first time in my life.  I saw something in them that was different to me. I had a sense of struggle getting into education whereas they had a sense of entitlement. This was my first real glimpse of what it meant to be privileged.   In the sense that everyone around me absolutely expected to be there. In my Sociology classes I understood cultural capital straight away whereas my middle class friends struggled with the concept. I felt a bit of an outsider and still do (over 30 years later) but education was truly transformative for me.  I saw it as a gift from nowhere and still deeply appreciative to those who taught me. One of the reasons I am comfortable in a post 1992 institution is because it is full of students who are just like me. They are, mostly, first in their families to go to University, a bit unsure of themselves at first, crossing boundaries and entering terrain unknown to their families and friends. They remind me of myself as they negotiate their way through a new landscape with new language and new ways of doing things.  They are part of the massive expansion of HE over the last 25 years which has channelled more and more working class youth into universities.  I have mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand there are students who (like me) have had transformative opportunities that would not have been available 30 years ago. There is no doubt that they are in the majority but there is a smaller number of young people with undoubted abilities and keen intelligence who just should not be there and would be happier and more fulfilled in skills based careers. I think this has happened because alternative opportunity structures have been systematically dismantled. As the material productive base for the economy has shifted globally to the poorest countries in the world so the apprenticeships and skills based futures for young people in traditional working class communities went with them. I am often torn about the merits of the expansion of Higher Education but now new pressures mean we are facing a shrinkage of H.E provision as the funding structure has shifted from the state to the individual.

I never thought I would see a Labour government introduce fees for Higher Education that costs at least £29,000.  I find myself compromised at Open Days when parents ask me what they will be getting extra or that is better for their money. The truth is that the only change is that your son or daughter is paying with loan instead of the state.  Having said that the youthful approach to debt is not like our generation. They seem to have normalised it do not seem afraid of it. Nevertheless the new system does mean that many young people from working class backgrounds will not take the risk of not finding a job at the end of it and opt for employment as hard and uncertain as that may be.

On a day to day basis we are working in a changing sector and the demands on us as lecturers are varied and increasing all the time. We are all committed to good quality teaching but preparation often comes last after administration, marketing, recruitment, negotiating ever changing digital technologies, pastoral support and constant evaluation of what we do. As a lecturer I get particularly fed up with constant discussion of employability. Of course I want each student I teach to see themselves as confident, literate, critical in thought, and competent and most of all entitled to consider a range of professional roles.  I also want to impart a sense of entitlement in my students but that it is education that will change them and all the rest will follow.  I often say that they will never regain these three years when they develop critical thinking and learn how to frame challenges and how to question the world they inhabit. Our students do succeed and often not straight away after graduation but our alumni do let us know that reach their goals with a few years. I try to put myself beside them and constantly work with the theme in my head ‘you are entitled to this education … take it and do your utmost with it’.  Sometimes this approach works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Over the years I have seen the relative pay of lecturers drop systematically. This is a hard one to argue sometimes because the institutional terms and conditions are relatively good and the pay is better than a lot of other public sector roles. However, it is also true that the profession (in comparison to others with same level of required qualifications) has been slowly downgraded over a period of time.  That period of time coincides with the privatisation of the sector. The workplace is also full of inequalities.  The public face of equality is not reflected in the figures.  Nationally only 20% of professors are women  and the whole of the UK there only 85 (real number) black professors.  This white male hegemony at the top end of system is not a surprise as most hierarchies of labour power have the same pattern.  In a seminar on ‘race’ and ethnic inequality recently a student commented that they had seen one black teacher in the university over three years.  This is not unusual it is commonplace. The gender pay gap also prevails when new young female members of staff arrive they stay on the basic lecturer grade a lot longer than male counterparts. Middle aged women like myself and those around me keep doing what we are doing with little hope of promotion as most of those go to younger men.  I have two black male colleagues. Recently one was asked to sit on panels to discuss ‘race’ issues and he protested that surely it must be for someone more senior.  The answer came back that there were no black staff above his grade at all in the institution.  I see the inequality on a daily basis and used to get involved and join committees and union discussions s to try and change it.  I have learned that this only works when there is a political will to change but unfortunately political individualism and the general reluctance to address sex and race discrimination issues is part of the culture. So life in the public Higher Education sector is challenging, infuriating, and stilting particularly to committed women of a certain age and to my black male colleagues.   On the other hand most of my colleagues and myself are passionate about education would not want to be anywhere else except in a post 92 university reminding our students that  they are inspiring and intelligent young people with huge potential and should be entitled to all that is on offer during their 3 years with us.

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