Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Why I was on strike

I don't usually speak. It's not a straightforward lack of confidence: I usually feel pretty confident, and I have no problem talking to a group, or asserting myself with strangers. But, when it comes to speaking out about something I actually believe in or care about, I just don't speak up in public. It's probably as a result of being shamed for being clever throughout my formative years, which trained me to be quiet, hide my opinion, and feign stupidity (all strategies for avoiding unwanted attention). In these ways, I am not always a good academic, although I'm always benefitting in hundreds of ways, large and small, from being an academic: Teaching, reading, thinking, writing, presenting and explaining my research.

I mention all of this only as a prelude to the following essay, which has been prompted by today's strike action for fair pay in Higher Education, in which I took part. I stood on the picket line from 8:00am-11:30am outside my university, SOAS. When I'm not teaching or writing my PhD there, I work in a newsagent's. In my capacity as the person who stands behind the till, I have quite a lot of experience in opening conversations with people I don't know. My usual approach to anyone who appears to be over the age of forty is to keep it quite formal, and I employed the same approach whilst on strike, since I presume that getting people to stop and listen to you is easier if they think you're an alright person. So that's what I did today. "Good morning," I said to a grey-business man as he advanced towards me. He looked me right in the eyes, inexplicably angry, and without breaking his stride he spat at me: "I HOPE YOU GET RAINED ON!!" crossed the line, and hurried inside.

To that man, on the extremely slim chance you read this: Don't be an abusive bumhat to people who are spending part of their otherwise productive working day outside in the freezing cold, just to get their employer to acknowledge that it might be a good idea to pay a fair wage. You may disagree with the politics of a strike, you may disagree with the concept of fair wages, but either way, you don't get to behave as though you are a superior species. I didn't get chance to say that at the time so it feels good to get that off my chest. I don't usually speak: I am not the sort of person who writes a blog post about every single thing that happens to me. Today is different, and this essay is about something that has become the defining feature of my life: financing my PhD.

The story actually starts before I was born. Neither of my parents went to university, and I was the first in my mum's side of the family to do so. This meant that I had no concrete expectations about what university life would or should be- in particular, I did not know about getting funding. Obviously, I got a loan from the Student Loans Company, but it wasn't until I was well into my (part-time self-funded) MSc that I found out I could have applied for grants and/or scholarships. Neither the former polytechnic where I took my undergraduate degree (first class honours), nor the Russell Group institution where I did my masters, had the slightest interest in how I was funding my current or future studies.
Of course, had I the faintest idea that it was something I was able or expected to do, I could easily have researched sources of funding. My point is that a combination of my life experiences and lack of guidance meant that I literally didn't know it was possible for me to apply for a scholarship or a grant. Working class and lower-middle class kids and their families can be completely clueless about the inner workings of the behemoth that is the higher education-bureaucracy. Our class is no longer a formal barrier to higher education, but our cluelessness still disadvantages us, compared to parents who can draw on their personal experience, or pupils at schools that invest time in preparing them for university.

Since graduating in 2007, I have worked to fund my studies; but since about 2010 my part-time wages haven't even covered the cost of living. So I've taken loans, more-or-less cancelled my social life, sponged off the overwhelming generosity of my family, got a credit card, extended my overdraft... I have scraped the bottom of the barrel so many times that it has almost worn away. And I am so, so lucky to have had access to any kind of barrel for scraping. (My parents have remortgaged their house several times to support their children. But what happens to the children of those who don't own their home?) After living this way for three years, I am now making a last-ditch effort: taking a year out from my studies to try to earn the money that will allow me to complete my PhD. The risk of this strategy is that if I'm not able to afford my fees in September 2014, the university won't let me go back to finish my doctorate. Ever.

In short: I've had to fund my studies without support from the institutions that, in theory, exist to support high-achieving students- even though I have always been a high-achieving student (I was a boffin at school- see my prelude, above). As a more-or-less direct result of that lack of funding, I'm now experiencing some relatively serious cash-flow problems, like 99% of the country. What do I want? Sympathy? I do realise how whiny this may sound: 'Woe is me, with my university education and my first world problems. My diamond shoes are too tight.' Well, I'm not asking for your sympathy. My contention is that my problems are not my own, that my situation is just one illustration of some of the problems within Higher Education in the UK.*  These are not problems that can be considered or solved an individual basis. Rather, my personal academic-financial crisis should be considered as a result of the recession, the subsequent cuts to the higher education budget, and the consequences this is having for the employment prospects of PhD students and so-called 'early career researchers,' many of whom might as well be called 'potential-career researchers' (or 'unemployed').

This is the current situation and the immediate future at which many current and recent PhD students are balking, and/or crying. The PhD is basically the gateway to working as an academic: it's a vocational qualification as much as anything else. What getting a PhD involves, essentially, is two years of expensive and masochistic training, possibly including field research, then wading through the aptly-named valley of shit, trying but probably failing to publish in a respected journal, finally finishing your thesis, passing your viva, and spending 3 to 12 months on corrections. All this, whilst surviving hand-to-mouth on a combination of freeganism, Poundland-sourced caffeine, and eating the envelopes in which the utilities companies send their notices of final warning. Your family will not hear from you except when you need an emergency cash injection, you can say goodbye to your previous level of health and fitness for it will go into a fast and steep decline, and you will no longer have any friends outside the university.

If you are not a PhD student, just take notice of the mental fatigue you have suffered from just reading my highly detailed and accurate account of academic life, and you will come close to understanding how hard it is to do a PhD. Imagine now, that after all that work, that you actually become Dr Whomever: PhD students are being told that in the current climate we probably won't find a job in higher education for at least six months - it's probably more like a matter of years. When we do get an academic job, it will probably be teaching on a 'zero-hours' and/or temporary contract, and we may only be paid for the hours we spend in the classroom (not for preparation, marking etc)... a bit like the jobs we already have in fact. We will remain junior staff members well into our forties and have little job security before then. To add to our already-high stress levels, we will probably have at least £10,000 of personal debt (I will have about £22,000). The knock-on effects may mean not being able to afford a mortgage, or not having enough money to have children or get married in the way we want to (NB. that one is not a problem for me), and almost certainly nothing left at the end of the month for savings or a private pension. And just to be absolutely clear: I'm talking about the jobs we will be getting for the 10 years after we fucking graduate. Morale among the PhD students with whom I am acquainted is quite low, as if there are beatings scheduled on a regular basis for the next decade.

With things the way they are now, our already precarious positions are not likely to become significantly more stable unless we are (individually) very, very lucky. This is the situation into which today's strike attempts to intervene. The strike is part of an ongoing pay dispute between the unions and UCEA, over the former's rejection of the latter's offer of a paltry 1% pay increase, and the former's justified rejection of that offer. The unions' demand is for an increase of 3.1%, which seems modest when the current rates of pay are effectively 13% lower than four years ago, UK universities have over £1 billion in the bank, and the cost of living is up by 15%. If the unions succeed and are able to negotiate a greater pay increase, not only will current academic staff benefit. Such a victory might make it easier for the unions to negotiate for similar pay increases in further and higher education in the future.

Whether or not this industrial action is successful, it is ethically, politically, and ideologically necessary as a demand that the labour of academics should be recognised for the benefits it actually brings to society. That education is a good in its own right has become something of a truism thanks to its prominence in the rhetoric of recent student protests. Nevertheless, certainly it is true for me- and accepting its truth requires the acknowledgement that learning doesn't stop at or after the PhD stage. Actually, the more highly-qualified members of a university community are also still learning- and without them (teaching fellows, lecturers, professors), there wouldn't be any education because there wouldn't be anyone to do the teaching.

What I would like to see is a higher education system based on the principle of education as a good to which anyone and everyone has access, certainly not privatised or managed for-profit. A fair wage for academics should obviously be a living wage, but it should also reward the long years of hard work that are spent achieving the necessary expertise and qualifications. It would be enough to allow for the repayment of any debts incurred en route- as with surgeons, lawyers, engineers, musicians, etc. After all, regardless of whether a surgeon is "really" more valuable to society than an academic, for surgeons to exist there need to be universities full of academics who can teach them (not only medicine itself but the history of medicine, bioethics, medical anthropology...). Unfortunately, I think that our dedication to education might be one of the reasons why the university system is able to take academics for granted. We would do the teaching out of love for our students and we do our research for love of our topics and disciplines. We are still there in universities and colleges, making our contribution, even though we are not very well paid. That is why I joined the union, and that is why I was on strike. I refuse to allow myself, or my brilliant and passionate colleagues, to be exploited.

* Other problems in UK HE sector include: 1. That it's a "sector" now. 2. Ancient campuses and buildings that "cannot" be adapted to make them accessible to disabled students. 2. Institutional racism. Only 8% of UK professors are black or from an ethnic minority background. Even scholars of Africa are unlikely to be from Africa (for example: me). 3. Privatisation of various functions of universities (halls of residence, catering & cleaning, even student debt) when their status is as public institutions. Feel free to add to this list.

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