RISING FEES, FALLING JOBS, COLLAPSING STANDARDS: THE UNIVERSITY HEADING FOR DISASTER

I could reduce today’s post down to a tweet: ‘University fees climb as teaching contracts dwindle’ and be done, for I tire of feeling perpetually pessimistic. Next post, I’m here promising myself, must be on a sunny subject, though I wonder what this can be. After marking between Friday and Sunday a pretty poor set of students’ exercises, I find myself wanting very much to take the lost weekend days off and go wandering in the city (argh, heavy rains today, no chance!).

Actually, the exercises have much to do with the bleak mood. Let me rewind. I want to discuss here why the university has embarked on a relentless destruction of tenured positions. This is connected with the rising fees demanded by English universities, up to £9000, in the Guardian article that I wish to comment on (“Universities accused of ‘importing Sports Direct model’ for lecturers’ pay” by Aditya Chakrabortty and Sally Weale, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay?CMP=share_btn_link). The authors consider the outrageous decisions by which the surplus income made by exploiting teachers is being invested on superfluous new facilities and on the scandalous salaries of the top administrators, as lecturers suffer the indignity of “zero-hours contracts, temp agencies and other forms of precarious work”. We have not yet hit that low mark in Spain (it’ll come…) but I am surrounded by increasingly overworked associate teachers, who need to juggle two or three jobs at the same time, as they endlessly wait for something to happen. And for students to react.

A point which the Guardian article does not consider is how these teachers’ burnout is also caused by falling standards among students. Being tenured, I can quickly overcome the disappointment caused by an irregular batch of students’ exercises, as I have the rest of my working day for my research. For an associate, however, the time students do not invest in doing their homework properly, is time added to painful correction and, thus, needlessly deducted from their already scant time for research. This generates terrible frustration which, in addition, goes unnoticed in the classroom (or just attributed to the teacher’s bad temper), for students ignore the sacrifices that teaching them entails. Technically, you might say that by accepting low salaries and precarious contracts, associate teachers are actually paying for the ‘privilege’ of teaching students who totally misread the situation, assuming we are all tenured (and well paid).

Chakrabortty and Weale’s piece is part of a series on “increasingly precarious jobs” in the UK, a label one would associate with occupations destroyed mostly in factories during the transition to a post-industrial economy but not with higher education and university classrooms. Both in Britain and in Spain, and surely all over the world, young researchers with strong vocations are being ruthlessly exploited by being underpaid, overworked and offered only part-time positions. Tenure, in the meantime, is slowly becoming a myth.

I became a tenured teacher myself 14 years ago, aged 36, which was back in 2002 the exact average age for new tenured teachers (nonetheless, I had to wait for 11 years since my first contract and for 6 after submitting my PhD dissertation). Since 2002 each year one extra year has been added, so that, as a friend told me recently, he expects to get tenure by the time he’s 48. And he’s one of the lucky university teachers, as he has a full-time job. Another dear friend with an absolutely brilliant CV has been finally offered a full-time contract (though for a temporary position) after 15 years as an associate combining two hectic jobs.

In England, the Guardian article claims, the National Union of Students has complained that “low-paid and overstressed tutors may not be providing quality education”, implicitly stressing that this is what students getting into heavy debt to afford a university degree want. Here in Spain fees are not that high but they’re very high considering the average income of families (and I mean BA degrees, MA degrees are simply impossible to afford for most). I don’t see, however, that students are doing their best to maximize the investment made in their education. Taking into account what I see in class, about 20% are doing their best, 20% do not care at all and the rest, 60%, just get by. Every day I teach Victorian Literature I have to put up with the expression of absolute boredom, even disgust, of one of my girl students, sitting very visibly in the middle of the classroom. Does she know, I wonder, what I’ve gone through in my life to be there teaching her? Does she know, I wonder, what my less privileged colleagues put up with? Why is she in my classroom at all?

I have been carefully avoiding this kind of complaint here in this blog because, as I say, I tire of feeling bitter and pessimistic. However, the truth is that my conversations with the Department colleagues always revolve around these twin topics: how little students do and how much we need to do. If we are active researchers, then we’re continually monitored and basically told we don’t do enough no matter how hard we struggle. If we’re not active in research, then our workload goes up dramatically (it used to be 24 ECTS for everyone, now it’s up to 32 ECTS for non-researchers). Associate teachers tend to teach 18 ECTS but they’re employed mostly teaching compulsory courses, always more crowded than electives and always more demanding in terms of marking and grading exercises. They rarely complain in public because one thing the university teaches you from day one is that you can be very easily replaced–associate positions can be reorganized on a yearly basis.

How often we discuss student motivation without taking into account that those needing motivation are the precarious teachers!! “When academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity,” declares Sorana Vieru, a vice-president at the English students’ union, “the knock-on effect on students is significant”. Obviously! What she is not adding, but I am, is that this demoralization is deepened by most students’ nonchalant approach to their own education. An associate rising up at 6:30 am to get her classes ready can be indeed frustrated, and even angry, seeing that students have not bothered to read the five-page text assigned for class discussion that day. This is what is going on, right now, right here, every day.

We, teachers, are, then in a Scylla and Charybdis situation, trapped between the devious plans of the administration to gradually undermine our profession and the students’ indifference. Please, don’t tell me that their indifference is in its turn caused by the lack of prospects for one way of fighting a bleak future is to throw yourself with all your might into improving your chances to do well. I cannot explain well why the authorities are destroying the university, for the obvious explanation that our budget needs simply to be reduced does not make sense. Less investment in higher education means less investment in the nation’s future, whether this is Spain or England, and logic dictates that part-time teacher/researchers can only produce a very limited amount of good research. If the destruction of the public university system has been designed to boost the private universities and to push the working-classes out of the system, then, let me clarify that at least here in Spain private universities are not at all a haven for teachers/researchers and that, from what I gather, most students in my Department are middle-class rather than working-class.

I don’t know any associate teacher who has given up yet. I knew once a girl, hired by my Department at the same time as I was, 25 years ago, who very soon saw that the road was too steep, the rewards too little and abandoned the university after only one course. These were the good times, when my second-year, pre-LOGSE students were producing work that could now be acceptable in MA degrees. Yes, I know, every generation complains about falling standards and that the young do very little, or nothing at all, in comparison to what they did. The difference, I believe, is that it’s never been so hard to work as a university teacher for those aged 25-45 and they do need more than ever the students’ collaboration in what we do. All of us need it.

Otherwise, nothing makes sense in our teaching lives.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. Or email me at Sara.Martin@uab.cat.

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