Dr Sarah Wilson is a Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of Stirling and an active member of the University and College Union (UCU).
Even though she’s on a permanent contract now, she remembers what it was like working on casual contracts for eight years: “It’s more your sleep that you don’t get. Whether you’ve got rent or you’ve got a mortgage or if you’ve got children, you just don’t know if you’re going to be able to support them.”
Wilson explains why lecturing is especially hard to get into: “Usually you need at least two postgrad degrees and then maybe a postdoc and then publications.” It may take several years post PhD to reach a permanent position in academia.
All the while you are often on a casual contract, which is often fixed term, ranging from six months to a couple of years, and maybe only for a day a week. “You have to work on several projects to make ends meet,” explains Wilson. “Across the sector that’s increasingly the case for people doing teaching as well. So they might be teaching at several universities, but they don’t have a permanent contract at any.”
All of this affects state pension contributions: “You’re never going to qualify really for a full state pension, which is partly why the USS pension that we’re also in dispute about is so important.” Wilson estimates that her pension has been cut by roughly 35 per cent and newer lecturers cannot afford to pay into the system.
No time for research
Another thing Wilson is concerned about is the increased workload. A lecturer’s work, she says, should be “40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% admin”. Wilson is the head of her division, so she has more administrative work than most. However, during the semester she still spends most of her time teaching, leading to her having to do all her research in the summer.
“People think that we have full summer holidays like school teachers,” said Wilson. “If I’m going to write anything, I have to do it in the summer pretty much, and the thing is if I don’t do it and if I don’t bring in research money, then somebody will likely talk to me about my performance.”
The Covid-19 pandemic only amplified this issue. “None of us knew how to use Teams before,” Wilson and the other lecturers had to come in for training sessions during the summer, when they were supposed to be doing research, to master Canvas and Microsoft Teams.
Many lecturers had to completely redo their courses, figure out how to do live sessions, and come up with interesting activities to do during them.
“Luckily, some of us would have recorded lectures to use, but you had to then edit them because you realised if you put this online, you need to take out all the digressions common in live lectures. You need to provide a narrative around recorded lectures so that they make sense to a new group of students,” said Wilson.
Road to burn out
To Wilson, it seems like there are always small things being added to their job: “There’s more and more of this job that gets taken up by teaching admin and filling in forms and responding to evaluations and chasing up students who don’t show up.”
On top of it, Wilson has to deal with students’ everyday problems including mental health issues: “Students come to you, you know, and you’re not going to push them away”.
“I used to think right, I can manage that, I can get my teaching done, I can do that, and then I’ll work at weekends, and I’ll work in the evenings, and I’ll be able to do the rest,” said Wilson. And that was a surefire way to burnout.
“I’ve realised you can’t do that forever. You get ill — I got ill as a result of it. I don’t want that to happen to people newer to the profession, and that’s not how you produce great knowledge either. You know, people being constantly stressed, with no space to think except in the summer,” said Wilson.
Future of education
Wilson says that she desperately wants this dispute to be resolved because it’s “rubbish” for the students too. But she is worried about where the education system is heading. The working conditions, Wilson believes, push current and potential academics into other sectors or even out of the country.
She sees many academics going to Ireland and the EU, where the pay is generally better, and where there are often English language programmes: “I know of somebody who’s doing a PhD, and she’s moved to the Netherlands to do a postdoc. I know of other people who’ve gone to Sweden to do their PhD because they figure they’ll have more of a chance there than here.”
Academia might have a different face soon unless the pension is restored Wilson thinks: “Talking to PhD students, they are thinking ‘I can’t stay in academia, I’m gonna have to work for the government, or I’m just going to leave, or I’m not going to do a PhD’ and it’s going to be a reserve of the privileged.”
Featured Image Credit: Twitter / UCU Stirling