The Kent lecturer who cannot afford to strike

Image courtesy of: The University of Kent

She is a world-respected expert in nineteenth-century Indian railways and has taught at Salisbury University in Maryland, SOAS, and Goldsmiths. But she is also mother to a daughter in nursery and an adult with bills to pay. Her name is Dr Aparajita Mukhopadhyay and she cannot afford to strike. I found Aparajita marking essays when I entered her office for our interview. She has been at Kent for a year now and is a well-liked lecturer. She is also a big supporter of the strikes; she has got a University College Union (UCU) poster on her door. But there she was, marking essays instead of out on the picket line. My first question to her had to be, “why aren’t you striking?” “I cannot afford to strike, financially speaking”, Dr Mukhopadhyay told me. Lecturers do not get paid when they strike, and while there is help available to mitigate the impact for those participating, it is not enough for people like Aparajita. She has a daughter with day-care to pay for and a new home in Canterbury with bills and taxes that need tending to. While she is definitely in solidarity with her fellow lecturers on strike, she cannot join them. “My finances are in a state…I cannot afford to take that financial beating’’.

It is far more widespread than many think. But this financial situation is not just Aparajita’s.

It is far more widespread amongst lecturers than many think. Aparajita agreed to be interviewed to refute the “widespread assumption” amongst students and parents that the lifestyle of lecturers is “subsidised”, that they “get paid a lot, take long summer breaks, teach very little, and whose contact hours are very short”.

This is not the case. “The salary which we get is not very much” for the equivalent of teaching hours they give, she said. Teaching is not just in the classroom delivering lectures and seminars, but preparing for those lectures and seminars, choosing readings, collecting sources and creating PowerPoints. Then there is the “teaching-related administration,” like marking essays, providing office hours, and replying to emails.“Teaching is not a job that ends at five in the evening.” These things are inescapable for lecturers, she said. “You cannot refuse to participate because for many of us…we do it for something beyond the financial”, they do it because of their “desire” and “need” to share their research with society. But all this means that the lecturers’ jobs “really spill out and we are not paid”.

“Unfortunately, students are not aware of it… I do not blame them”.

For Aparajita, many students have “very poor financial understanding” and “an assumption that once out of a PhD you get a cushy job”. Again, this is misguided, to her. “There are not simply jobs coming out” and when they do, they are short-term and non-permanent contracts lasting usually a year. According to her, these positions are not only “academically dangerous” by not allowing lecturers to conduct research, their “financially precarious” nature means many lecturers avoid “important and transformative life experiences” like parenting. As researchers and academics, “they simply cannot afford to do it”. For Aparajita, this is “inhuman… it shouldn’t happen in a society which expects their academics to work with integrity” and bring “best quality research…to the classes”.

"Students mean a lot to us" With many lecturers disappearing from campus altogether during strikes, I wanted to know how much of a ‘striker’ Aparajita would be if she could. She immediately replied: “I would be on the picket lines. I believe visibility is important, that solidarity is important.” Strike visibility is important in showing students that “we’re not doing it for fun! It’s not about capitalising on research time, it’s not a ‘rouse’”. “Students mean a lot to us; we wouldn’t just walk out of classrooms…without good reason”. Aparajita made plain and very clear the reason why she and thousands of her colleagues across the country feel the need to strike, the “problem which is hunting UK higher education across the board” is the “commercialisation of education”. Put simply, this is the “idea that higher education should be for-profit”. It starts with students paying fees; because of these fees the students become customers, leading to the idea teachers should available in a way that “legitimises” that fee structure. The “other end” of this commercialisation is saving money. Most university revenue goes on students and staff costs. “Universities can start generating income” only when these revenues are reduced, for the staff that means ‘cost reduction’. One way in which staff costs have been reduced over the past decade has been to offer “precarious” jobs, short-term, or non-permanent university positions often only lasting one year, especially to “early career researchers”, those people who gained their PhDs in the last six years.

Not only do universities not have to offer research allowance to these short-term lecturers, the positions’ “precariousness” arguably leaves lecturers wondering what to do next. Unfortunately, even experienced lecturers like Aparajita “are accepting these work conditions because life has to go on; we have to pay our bills [and] take care of our families”. Indeed, even after working at four prestigious universities and over a decade after finishing her PhD, this is Aparajita’s first full-time permanent position. It is this “pincer movement of student fees and reducing staff cost” which has led to a “vicious circle” of teaching more, “because you want to leave your mark as a teacher” and get better student feedback because of commercialisation, but consequent little time for research “and if you don’t get research how can you publish it to get a better job?”

A drop in quality This has meant many choosing to leave academia and Aparajita arguing that “we’re losing those talents”. But for people who stay, it “undermines their morale”, which affects their ability to deliver quality teaching in the classroom. “If I’m worried about my bill payments or my daughter’s day-care bills…how can I bring good quality teaching?” For lecturers across the country, “this is the conundrum we are facing at an everyday level”. I then asked Aparajita about feelings between the lecturers themselves; beginning with how she feels towards those who can afford to strike but chose not to. “It’s their personal choice”, she insisted. Those who are not striking may have another way of engaging with government or administration about their grievances or the conditions may not have affected them “as disproportionately or as seriously as it may have affected others” like herself. Either way, Aparajita “would definitely leave it to their personal choice…I have nothing against that”. Indeed, there does not seem to be any bad blood between the lecturers, as Aparajita made clear when she confirmed she had not experienced any antipathy for not striking.

Strikers or not, “we are also colleagues with friendly relations”. Aparajita made her case clear with them and they know why she is not striking. They also understand Aparajita’s female and BAME status “underlies the precariousness even more” and have been very supportive. I wanted to know Aparajita’s views on the strikes themselves, especially if, after three strikes in two years, she feels they are actually achieving anything.

“Both yes and no”, she replied.

“Yes”, because of the “model of student as customer”; if there is high student dissatisfaction towards the university over the strikes, “hopefully that will send out a signal to the administration…that they cannot take this for granted”.

“No”, because “unfortunately… it seems that commercialisation of education is here to stay”.

The commercialisation of higher education

Aparajita knows first-hand what this commercialisation leads to through the “deeply flawed American model”, as she taught in America for three years.

Their system is flawed for the “one fundamental reason that it makes education a commodity…it relates education not to what you learn…but with things that are tangible”.

Instead of teaching and developing skills that can be used throughout life and employment, it seeks for direct results and benefits, making higher education “a commodity like an instant cup of coffee, where that gratification is there immediately and obviously”.

The British government’s pursuit of this scenario causes Aparajita to guess that strikes will become a regular occurrence, “if situations don’t improve, I cannot foresee any other way of moving forward…it seems to be a moment of deadlock”.

However, she was insistent that she could not pass a definitive comment since she is not in the hierarchy where those decisions are made.

Following on from her previous statement on student dissatisfaction as an achievement of the strikes, I asked Aparajita if she felt students were becoming disengaged or opposed to the strikes.

“Perhaps they are but I cannot blame them”, since they are paying so much and not getting anything out of it.

“Even if they’re dissatisfied, they should have an understanding that this commercialisation…is actually driving the precarious employment situation”.

If students fail to see the rise in fees and the drop-in pay, it would indicate more students in classes but fewer or less qualified teachers in the classroom, ultimately meaning “they will lose out”.

She also sympathises with students’ complaints; she was an undergraduate herself and never had to face this.

She highlighted how modern students have only ever seen this system of academic administration, know no other understanding of university education that was not fee-paying.

However, she made clear that “there’s an end to my sympathy”. She feels students need to understand “cause and effect”, to know what is happening around them and understand why rather than dismiss or oppose it completely.

Crucially, for Aparajita, for students to ask for compensation is “adding insult to injury”.

Asking compensation from the university administration means, if they pay, more “precarious employment situations for academics” since the university now had to accommodate for that loss in revenue.

For my last question, I asked Aparajita what she had to say to students who see the strikes as polarised between “strikers” and “workers”.

“I would hope that they would start to see their world, not just academics…but the wider world, as having really different shades of grey”, as “very complicated, very nuanced”.

She requested students consider the conditions lecturers are forced to work in and for those considering academic employment to “think specifically about where you think you’ll end up five years down the line and how to address these challenges” in both university and wider society. Aparajita ended the interview with a warning. “This should be an alarm…there is a slow erosion of our security and security… is inherently related to our ability to deliver good quality lectures [and] seminars”. If this erosion continues, “UK higher education will unfortunately lose out its excellence and the edge it enjoys globally”.

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