UCU representative and Kent professor speaks out on staff working conditions

Image Courtesy of: Jasper Gilardi

‘We are the university, not the management. It’s up to us to determine what kind of university we want to have.’

Since Monday 24 November, a strike action has hit the University of Kent over litigation surrounding pay gaps and working conditions.

Dr Claire Hurley is a UCU (the University and College Union) representative, as well as a lecturer in the School of English.

InQuire spoke to her in hopes of gaining a more personal understanding of why the strikes are happening and how it reached this point of academic crisis.

When talking about what the educational system has become and who is at fault, Dr Hurley said: “Education has become marketized. It’s similar to a corporate business where executives earn the most while the workers earn little. That’s what’s happened in the last twenty years, particularly due to the increased student fees. One of our slogan posters is ‘Education not Marketization’.”

“With education marketized, students become numbers for profit. As soon as that happens, students are de-personalised, from a management perspective. If you’re a teacher on the ground you see students struggling. We need investment in teachers, we need more time and money.”

There is, according to striking staff, a problem when it comes to the method of payment and the unequal pay that the university staff are facing.

“Karen Cox earns £277,000 a year. Most of the university’s money goes through executive group, a group of ten people including Cox. It’s all above £100,000. It’s so much money they have to publish it. They benefit hugely while teachers are seen as a workforce,” Dr Claire Hurley said.

“I have to go to several meetings a week where we talk about ‘how to change this module’ or ‘how are we going to recruit students’ ‘how are we going to advertise and change the web page,” Dr Hurley went on to add.

“A lecturer’s job consists of this, whereas twenty years ago it wasn’t. I spend less time on my research and with students because of this. Instead, I’m in meetings about re-structuring the university. It’s all about money, they structure departments because they want to make things stream line and more efficient. Like a big business.”

The current situation for staff at the University of Kent

InQuire then asked Dr Hurley asked what is the current payment situation of the staff.

“PhD students and junior staff are paid by the hour. They might teach a one hour seminar, maybe one hour preparation and a few hours of marking. But to teach the seminar you have to spend time reading and preparing properly.”

“And the university simply doesn’t pay staff enough. It means people are working for free, they spend five hours preparing and they are not paid for that. Heads of departments simply do not listen to lecturers when they point this out. They claim that they cannot afford it. But the administration can afford to pay the vice chancellor £277,000.”

“We’re asking for a 3% pay increase, £10 minimum wage. A large proportion of lecturers on campus are hourly paid and are not full contracts. We’re setting out our demands through the Union, the UCU and a group called Precarious at Kent Uni. There are national issues here that should be addressed but local changes can be positive and students will benefit from them.”

This lead InQuire to ask a further question to Dr Hurley, if the staff is underpaid, yet tuition fees have risen, where does the money go?

“Into new buildings. The new buildings on campus cost millions. If you study business, you get the Sibson Building. If you study English, you’re in the Rutherford Annex, which has been there for forty years. There is an inequality depending on what subject a student studies,” Dr Hurley replied.

“The vice chancellors are essentially the head of a big business. They need to have a shiny campus that convinces potential students to study at Kent because it has a new building. That’s what the administration thinks is important.”

“What we think is important is the teacher and educational experience at Kent. We can’t carry on like this, we’re all overworked and burning out. Some are unwell and mental health issues among staff are high.”

“The administration puts money into HR and the market”

Dr Hurley’s response prompted InQuire to ask a further question: does this mean then that the University values the financial income far more that the students’ teaching?

She told us: “The administration puts money into HR and the market. Genuine care would mean investing in teaching. The reputation of the university is their priority.”

“We’ve seen a rise in student numbers ten years ago and its similar today. My students are amazing and it’s my job to give them the best educational experience. They have admitted more students but whether there is enough support for students is another question.”

“Counselling for students is a good example. Apparently, there is a six-month waiting list for counselling? Where is the investment into students? Teachers are doing as much as they can.”

If the staff is underpaid yet the teaching quality has not changed, one might wonder what is it that keeps the system functioning. Dr Hurley provided her view on this.

“It works because we’re killing ourselves over working. In order to do my job well I have to work till 8pm. It’s true for all staff, one of our demands is a 35 hour working week. Lecturers work 50 to 60 hours a week.”

Dr Hurley’s comment prompted the conversation to move onto the subject of a possible crisis in higher education.

“Other universities are going under as a result of this, Kent is currently running a deficit due to a low intake of students last year. The demand on staff means they can’t give students more time and value for their education. Students are forced to be consumers. The dynamic is wrong, education shouldn’t be a financial matter,” she told InQuire.

“It’s a lack of investment”

With something so serious as unfairly paid work, the question of how long this has been going on surfaced.

“There’s been a rise in casualisation as well as hourly pay and short-term contracts. Those have risen in the last 10 years. When student numbers increased the university employed lecturers part time or on an hourly basis. Again, it’s a lack of investment. These contracts are meant to be temporary but there being used year after year,” Dr Hurley clarified.

“Lecturers may have to manage two to three hundred students and some of them are hourly paid. So, there is a real structural problem, they need more permanent contracts security. I’ve been hourly paid for years and it’s so hard to live. You have to fill in time-sheets.”

“For lecturers who have built up their knowledge and completed a PhD you would hope that you were paid a decent wage. But I was paid less than ten grand when I began teaching and I was working with four to five groups of students a term. The university seems to devalue intellectual labour,” Dr Hurley insisted.

In a world with significant discrepancy in work payment and gender pay gaps, striking staff stress that universities should be one of the first institutions to support fair payment and equality.

“People are afraid for their jobs. I’m a union representative so it’s my job to speak up. People are afraid to stand up to their bosses and say their overworked. I tell my students that I don’t want this kind of environment. I don’t want them to expect to leave university and find a job where they have to work fifty hours a week. That’s not a society I want to work in. This is all for the future, not just the present. This kind of overworked culture stems from corporate business models,” Dr Hurley told InQuire.

What can students do to help?

InQuire then asked what students can do to support the movement. Dr Hurley’s response was straightforward.

“Students can help by listening and simply taking part. The staff will explain about why they are striking. There is information online if anyone wishes to pursue it, and the staff will be making selfie videos online explaining the situation and how students can participate.”

“There is a responsibility from both staff and students to engage with this. You can come to the picket lines in the morning, join rallies outside the student registry office. There will also be teach out events where lecturers will talk about a range of issues from hostile environments to working conditions, to broadly political issues that relate to the university.”

“Students can write to Karen Cox, the vice chancellor, about unequal pay. You have to think about what education is. I’m an activist so I can make positive change. If students stand up as a collective and demand action, you’ll make an impact. If you come to the strike and take action the university will listen. Because we are the university. We are the university, not the management. It’s up to us to determine what kind of university we want to have.”