A job in higher education from FE? - luxury!

30th May 2008 at 01:00
It was one of Monty Python's most memorable sketches

It was one of Monty Python's most memorable sketches. A group of suspiciously young-looking old men sitting round and trying to outdo one another as to how tough their childhoods were. "Paper bag - luxury!" was the phrase they immortalised.

We play a version of this sometimes when my extended family get together for a social gathering. The principal players are myself and my brother, who is a teacher and manager at a university in the Midlands. But others who teach in schools occasionally join in too.

The object of the game as we play it is to prove definitively to the others that pay and conditions where we work are much worse than those they have to endure. The strange thing is though, at the end of the process we all walk away convinced that we are the winner!

But now I have news for big brother. Next time we play, I have a new trump card: a friend who crossed the divide from further to higher education.

Let us call him Derek. Now in his early forties, Derek has had a not untypical career in FE. He came in from industry to teach his specialisation and quickly found himself teaching something else. Over the years he climbed the promotion ladder and ended up running a department.

By this time there weren't many related subjects that Derek hadn't turned his hand to but still he hankered after his original discipline. So when a job came up that he liked the look of at a university, he went ahead and made it his.

The money wasn't really any better (1-0 to my brother) but it allowed him at last to teach what he wanted to teach. Half of his time, though, was to be spent organising a programme of work.

What first struck Derek was that teaching a half-time load in HE didn't involve 12 hours with at least six different groups, plus all the marking and re-marking that he'd have been landed with in his old job. Instead, he found himself teaching for seven hours a week, with a relatively light load of student papers to mark (1-1).

The second thing Derek noticed was that sometimes he'd get a little lonely. This was particularly so first thing in the morning and last in the afternoon. When he turned up at his "usual" time of 8.30am, the only other people in the building were the cleaners. Poor Derek. He tried arriving and leaving when everyone else did, but found it hard to deal with the guilt. "It was like something was wrong, as if you were skiving off all the time." (2-1 to me.)

There were other clear differences in culture too. One of these was that universal fact of life in FE known as "you've got to do it". The lecturers he organises in his new job are not line managed by Derek. In fact he sometimes wonders if they are managed by anyone.

"When I ask them to do something," he said, "they weigh it up and decide whether or not to comply. They seem to think they've got a choice. Back in FE the only choice anyone ever had was to take it or leave it. And by leave it, I mean leave their jobs!" (3-1 to me.)

Then there was his obsession with telling people where he was. At least his new colleagues saw it as an obsession. For Derek it was normal. "As a middle manager in FE, if you weren't around no one concluded you were working on your research. They thought you must be slacking.

"Now I keep looking over my shoulder to see who's checking up on me, and the answer is that nobody is! That's quite a revelation after the Orwellian culture I'd grown used to."

By now I think I must have extended my lead to at least four clear goals. And it can be stretched even further. "In my new job," Derek told me, "I teach my subject. No one expects me to bone-up on a load of new stuff at the drop of a hat, then go and teach something I only half grasp." It has also dawned on him that he can research in his field, and get better qualified, at his employer's expense. "No one's been paid to improve their subject knowledge in FE since about 1981."

But it's Derek's final comment that is the real clincher. "Sometimes I just sit in my office and say to myself: `You haven't got a job any more, you've got a hobby.'"

Eat your heart out, big brother!

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