Students in a classroom at Utrecht University (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, casualisation, Coronavirus, Higher Education, job market, teaching

Covid-19: curse or opportunity?

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 4: teaching.

Covid-19. A curse, or an opportunity to change the endemic casualisation of higher education?

It’s no secret that the UK’s higher education system heavily depends on temporary staff. I’m sure you’ve all had to plough through job offers to find anything that wasn’t a ‘part-time’, ‘fixed-term’, or ‘zero hours’ contract.

A survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) in early 2019 estimated that “around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the [higher education] sector remain on fixed-term contracts”, whereas 37,000 teaching staff was found to be on fixed-term, hourly paid contracts (p. 3).

And these are only the official numbers: a further 71,000 – again, mostly hourly paid – teachers are apparently employed as ‘atypical academics’ but without being counted in the main staff record. UCU also estimated that “most universities rely on hourly paid staff to deliver around 25% of their undergraduate teaching” (p. 8).

What is perhaps most disconcerting is that this situation involves some of the most prestigious universities in the country: “In 2016/17 there were 71,960 atypical academics employed in UK universities, 50% of whom were employed in the ‘elite’ Russell Group of universities” (p. 7).

Needless to add that these atypical academics included many PhD students. In fact, there’s a real hunt for casual workforce in higher education, and PhD students seem to be the easiest prey, eager as they are to gain teaching experience and, hey, who knows, maybe even get a foot in the door. Money is also an issue, especially for unfunded students.

As much as I support the idea of offering students the opportunity to gain teaching experience during their PhD, most of the time it only reflects a department’s need to resolve structural problems. This is hardly good for its stability and continuity, and potentially damaging for the PhD students, who will likely find themselves struggling to complete their PhD within the set timeframe.

Universities also don’t always give PhD students proper training before they enter the classroom, which can impact on the quality of  teaching, and potentially on the students’ self-esteem.

Last but not least, allowing only some PhD students within a department to teach can create hierarchies between students, with some having access to an office while others are forced to roam computer rooms and libraries in search for a study space.

This can be highly exclusionary. I didn’t teach during my PhD, and had no access to office space or staff printing services. When I once had to ask a fellow PhD student and teaching assistant for the printer/copier code (to assist a conference attendant), she snobbishly walked off to make the photocopies herself. The thought that she was worried I might make improper use of her code deeply saddened me.

Early career researchers are another easy target. I had to teach up to 5 hours per week as part of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. I won’t say I was exploited, but I did spend a hell lot more than 5 hours on my teaching: course design and preparation, exam supervision, oral examinations, marking, honours supervision, feedback forms – it was a lot more than I had bargained for! By way of expressing gratitude, the department eventually forgot to mention me in a list of recently departed staff, in a School Newsletter published shortly after my fellowship ended. As if I’d never been there.

If this is the status quo, then just imagine the situation now, with the Coronavirus raging across the globe. What has been a long-term problem is now exploding in everyone’s face. Permanent staff is forced to shift to online teaching or being furloughed, something that isn’t guaranteed though for casual workers on short-term or zero hours contracts.

The universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex set a sad record in this perspective, as they made staff on fixed-term contracts redundant, or simply did not renew their employment.

The crisis is also affecting young researchers, with funding schemes or job vacancies being cancelled “due to Covid 19”, for example. Fortunately not all funding bodies resort to these extreme measures: the British Academy has just published its call for BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants 2020-21, extending the latest project start date in order to provide flexibility in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to predict how this will all work out. Some universities seem to be taking on a more responsible attitude, and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has just announced that funded doctoral students who have been impacted by Covid-19 will receive an extension to their research with additional grants, to complete their studies by 31 March 2021. There are also various petitions calling for more sustained support of casual workers (here’s one from the @CoronaContract).

Obviously the emergency situation requires immediate action, which may not have a long-term impact. Still, if the academic community manages to keep the pressure on government and institutions way beyond the crisis, perhaps Covid-19 could have some positive outcomes as well.

In the meantime…maybe it would be an idea to set up a platform (a blog, a webpage) where people can post their experiences of cancelled job interviews, funding schemes, and so on. It might give a clearer indication of the vastness of the problem, and perhaps offer a starting point for a nationwide campaign against the endemic casualisation of higher education in the long run.


More reading:

After the pandemic: re-imagining our universities (Medium)

Lecturers went on strike over insecure jobs – now we fear coronavirus cuts (Guardian)

Managing research risks – riding the wave of #phdpandemic (by Pat Thomson)

Students in a classroom at Utrecht University (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Students in a classroom at Utrecht University (photo by Andrea Hajek)


Previous post about teaching:

Lest we drown in student feedback

academia, Higher Education, student feedback, teaching

Lest we drown in student feedback (episode 4 of the Fabulous Four)

Fourth and last (for now) in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order)Episode 4: teaching.

Lest we drown in student feedback

(warning: this blog post contains a rant)

Not long ago I stumbled upon a heated discussion on Twitter, regarding plans of the University of Leeds to implement an anonymous student feedback plan. I couldn’t access the article reporting this fact (wasn’t bothered to pay the subscription fees, sorry), but apparently module leaders would need to respond to the anonymous student posts on the discussion board within five working days. Sure, why not just install self-flagellation poles in every faculty building. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

In the debate, people particularly expressed their concern about teaching staff being confronted with anonymous attacks upon their gender, ethnicity, class, physical appearance and clothing choices, even their teaching style.

They’re not exaggerating. Research has shown that the ethnicity of teaching staff can affect the outcomes of student feedback, which in the UK is gathered mainly through the National Student Survey (NSS). I have also heard accounts of students complaining about too much feminism, for example. I love this reply from the author of an Academics Anonymous article on the topic:

The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion. My response to the […] feedback was to include more content on feminism, not less.

Student feedback is not always useful. Given that participation is voluntary, response rates tend to be low, and when it is made compulsory things get worse: students are asked to comment on a course they might not have attended, or they just didn’t like the topic, leading to useless comments like the one cited above. Let’s face it: students don’t necessarily know how to assess teaching. We might just as well introduce HappyOrNot smiley terminals across campus, like those at airports or public toilets.

In my own experience, the whole student feedback business seems to be mostly a matter of ticking boxes and scoring high in the NSS. In fact, one university department was even caught instructing students to falsify their approval ratings, telling them that nobody would want to employ them if the responses were negative.

Yep, once more it all comes down to rankings, numbers, assessments. What is it about universities always wanting to score highest, or be the best? There’s even such a thing as the Top 20 UK University Campus Awards, which in my opinion have been more beneficial to building, furniture and gardening industries than for students and staff alike.

Let me tell you just this one anecdote, about a criticism I got on a grammar rehearsal class I ran in the last year of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. The purpose of the course was to repeat grammar topics the students (in their second year) had studied the previous year. They had to buy a textbook, from where we selected topics and exercises, and then I added some exercises of my own, occasionally also using songs and other, unconventional sources—y’ know, to make it all a bit less boring.

So basically I would refresh their memory by briefly explaining the topic, using the whiteboard, and then we would do exercises. If the topic covered multiple lessons I would do a brief recap. As they say, repetita iuvant. Additionally, I told students where to find the grammar rules explained in the textbook, and I had published a schedule on Moodle, the university’s online learning platform, with the weekly topics listed. In sum, anyone who missed class could stay on track.

In theory.

In practice, they didn’t. Quite a lot of students, in fact, skipped class every other week or so, especially the one at 9am. Maybe they thought attendance was an optional, or they believed to be doing an online, self-learning degree?

What’s worse is that most of the students didn’t buy the textbook. The result was me regularly facing half a dozen of lost souls staring at me as if I was the Dalai Lama doing a tap dance, often stubbornly justifying their failure to do any exercises by the fact that they had missed class. Poor lambs. As if that was my responsibility.

But see, that’s precisely the problem: I was responsible for making the course material available to them, but in the way THEY wanted it to be. Now I realize I’m coming from one angle, and who knows what kind of study/workload the students might have been struggling with, but when I was an undergrad I always tried to catch up if I missed class, copying notes from fellow students, or at the very least doing the required reading. Is it so hard?

It felt as if I had to deliver a product, and if it didn’t reach the student-consumer, even by their own fault, I was nevertheless to blame.

What really blew my mind, though, was the student feedback: I hadn’t uploaded Powerpoints to Moodle. POWERPOINTS. So they could catch up when missing a class.

Now I know my last blog post was all in favour of Powerpoint, and I maintain that stance, but obviously it depends on the context. I actually used PPT a lot in my classes, just not in this one. After all, it was a rehearsal class, with the grammar being explained in the textbook and then briefly illustrated in class: why should I copy and paste all the rules into a PPT presentation? All I did was to give concrete examples of the grammar rules on the whiteboard. Had I used a PPT instead, the students would undoubtedly have complained that the slides were too concise.

Anyway, in my response to the feedback I explained my teaching method for this specific course, and pointed out that many students were playing hooky, a fact that was backed up by the attendance forms. Surely this would be a point of concern for the College, much more so than my not using Powerpoint?

And yet, my line manager – actually a staunch supporter of traditional, non-visual teaching methods – completely disappointed me when I read his proposed solutions to the raised criticism, something he had to communicate to the College as part of the whole student feedback process. Probably didn’t think I would read the report, but I did.

He literally wrote that next year there would be a new teacher. As if the problem was the teacher, not the students skipping class à gogo.

Obviously the issue here is not the line manager. Lord knows how many of these reports he has to send off to his superiors every year. It does show, though, how ineffective student feedback can be, and the harsh impact it can have on staff. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here’s my recipe for a more humane approach to student learning experiences:

  • First, course convenors need to make it absolutely clear to students what is expected of them (also in terms of attendance), and what they should expect from the course.
  • Second, students need to be given proper instructions on how to assess teaching—a simple “be as objective as possible” sentence at the top of the survey will not suffice. And I would add, also tell them not to slash off teachers.

Most of all, I think we ought to do away with the anonymity culture behind student surveys. Maybe get them to share their experiences in a group chat run by an intermediate figure, who will liaise (so to speak) between students and teachers, making the former understand their responsibilities and filtering out potentially unfounded criticism when reporting back to the latter.

Wouldn’t that be a lot nicer?