This article in the Independent caught my eye. It nicely sums up why I didn’t go into university ‘teaching’ when I finished my PhD. The ‘publish or perish’ culture for faculty staff means that teaching undergraduates takes a back seat. The only thing that interested me about a career as a lecturer was the actual lecturing. Most research, including mine, is a load of old wank, and I had no interest in pursuing ever decreasing circles of interest in whatever. Writing a PhD on Don DeLillo put me right off him, and I would hate to destroy another interest/enthusiasm in the same way.
Now undergraduates are being asked to pay as much as £9000 a year for the privilege of being at university, you’d think that more priority would be given to teaching them. They are, after all, paying customers, not the freeloaders they would have been 15 years ago.
PhD students – occupying the precarious first rung on the academic career ladder – are the most vulnerable group amongst teaching staff, working on short-term contracts and increasingly pressured into working for free. Ever more aspiring academics are being used as cheap substitutes for more experienced but expensive senior lecturers. Academics warned that undergraduate students being asked to pay a total of £27,000 in tuition fees for their degrees are becoming more vociferous about being taught by junior academic staff. In one incident a heated dispute arose between students and PhD teaching staff over the marking of essays.
Instead, universities are (as ever) using postgrad students to run seminars and mark essays. When I was doing my PhD I did a semester of seminar teaching and marking. I remember one woman getting really aggressive with me about the mark I’d awarded her, trying to intimidate me (whom she knew was a mere student like her) into raising the grade. That was in the mid-90s, long before the current round of cuts and more cuts and extortionate fees. Fortunately, the senior lecturer whose course it was backed me up. He wasn’t even doing the main lectures, by the way, it was another PhD student doing that.
I hated that experience, and it opened my eyes to the skewed universe of academia, where getting articles and books published is the sole focus of most teachers, because research ratings attract funding, and funding is what universities need. I don’t remember how much I was paid to sit in a sullen and resentful atmosphere with students who felt they’d been shortchanged, but it wasn’t enough.
But it’s a puzzle, isn’t it, when they’re charging undergraduates £9000 a year, why they’re still prioritising research funding?
Even more outrageously, universities are apparently blaming funding cuts for the increasing use of PhD students as teachers, and they’re even going the route of the private sector and using them as unpaid labour. All of which makes being a PhD student more like an internship, one of those internships that are so prized that you pay for the privilege of working for free.
Meanwhile, the people whose job it is to design courses, teach them, and set exams, are sitting in their offices writing books that will — if they’re lucky — be published by academic publishers for extortionate prices and purchased by fewer and fewer libraries, because, hey, their funding is being cut, too.
It’s a rarified world indeed when books-that-hardly-anyone-will-ever-read take priority over teaching students who are crippling themselves with debt for the chance to be taught by some of these great intellectuals.
The much bigger question here, of course, is where is all the fucking money? Think about it. The economy grew and grew during the 90s and 00s; so it shrank back a bit since 2008, but the economy is still bigger than it was in, say, 1992, and it’s not as if taxes went down in that time.
But not only can universities not afford to pay teachers, but the country apparently can’t afford to build or repair roads, build or repair schools*, or pull weeds from flowerbeds on public property. I’m not talking about austerity or cuts, I’m talking about years of underinvestment in public goods like infrastructure. Cameron’s government haven’t really cut anything yet. All the staff my school is cutting are leaving at the end of this academic year. We’re not feeling the bite of Cameron’s cuts yet.
So where’s the money? The FT reports that bankers’ salaries are up 37% in four years. Pause to let that sink in. Pause to remind myself that I’m £40 a month worse off since April, thanks to changes in my pension and tax. I’m £480 per year worse off (that’s an iPad, or a holiday), but bankers’ pay is up by 37% since they collectively fucked the economy.
In other words, the money, the money that should be spent on roads and schools and paying PhD students to teach resentful students, is lining the pockets of those paid to gamble with it.
Pause to remember that most of the trades taking place on stock exchanges are managed by computer algorithms, not actual people.
But okay there are people being paid shedloads to sit watching computers do their work for them, but they’re all paying taxes so that’s all riiiiight.
You think the Greeks are dodging their taxes, IMF lady? Take a look at the fucking roads in the UK, one of the world’s richest economies. Just look at them. Take a look at 27-year-old postgraduates being asked to work for free, “for the experience”. Take a look at my classroom, with it’s 6-year-old computers, and 20-year-old carpet covered in squashed chewing gum; my classroom with its five different kinds of chair and four different kinds of desk, with a projection screen installed by Bodgit and Scarper, held up more by hope than actual fittings. Take a look at all that, IMF lady, and tell me that everybody in the UK is paying the right amount of tax.
*except for nutter-inspired free schools