We're all just whingeing to the converted

9th May 2008 at 01:00
Australians, of course, like to call us Brits "whingeing Poms"

Australians, of course, like to call us Brits "whingeing Poms". You may have noticed that some people have a similar term for those who earn their living in the classroom: whining teachers.

Writing about college life from the perspective of an ordinary lecturer, it's hard sometimes not to go in for a bit of whining myself. Try as I might to keep it to a minimum, from time to time it just comes bubbling up. Now, I must warn you, is one of those times.

Two weeks ago, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), wrote a piece in FE Focus about research into staff satisfaction in further education ("Time to boost lecturers' pay and wellbeing", Comment, April 25). If you missed it, you won't be surprised to hear that there was a lot of discontent evident in the answers of the 3,000 people who took part in the survey, conducted for the union by the Learning and Skills Network.

By chance, the day before Sally Hunt's analysis appeared, a large number of UCU members were on strike over pay. I didn't come out myself, but then I wasn't in. And if you're not in, how can you be out? To put it another way, as a part-time lecturer, the strike happened to fall on a day I don't normally work.

As it happens, I'm not keen on one-day strikes, so didn't vote for action this time. It all smacks (forgive the pun) of masochism to me - a grand self-sacrifice wherein the only loser is the striker. The students get a day off, the employer saves on salaries and, given the punitive way a day's earnings are calculated, strikers lose a substantial sum of money. To add insult to (self-) injury, several lecturers I know used the day to catch up on marking.

So why did around two-thirds of those in the ballot vote for it? Because they are desperate. And because, after years of watching the Government - that many of them voted for - talk one way and act another, they felt they had no other choice.

Unlike the schoolteachers who were also out on the day (and inevitably mopped up most of the media coverage), FE teachers weren't trying to hang on to gains made in pay since 1997. There haven't been any. The figure often quoted is that FE pay is now 6 per cent below pay in schools, although whenever I compare salaries with teachers, the gap seems far greater.

But to return to that survey. The UCU emailed it to members and, while I didn't read the entire 66 pages, I did read the executive summary pretty thoroughly. What struck me straight away was how almost all the findings reflected my own experience. What also hit home was how schizophrenic we lecturers have become. On the one hand we enjoy our work: over 80 per cent said that. On the other, we seem not to like where we work: fewer than a third of lecturers said they would recommend their college as a good place to work; more than 40 per cent said they didn't feel valued by their employer. But the sad truth is that the grass isn't going to be any greener on the other side. The things that make life unpalatable in one college - managerialism, lack of autonomy, too much to do and too little time to do it in - are pretty much the rule in all the others too.

Just as we like our work, a massive 86 per cent of us also believe we make a positive contribution to society by doing it. We know that others may see our students as the second-class citizens of the education system, yet we are proud to teach them. Almost three-quarters of all staff said this.

But once again we pay a price for our pride in what we do. Almost 75 per cent said their work involved too much stress. Nearly half said they weren't able to achieve a good work-life balance. And so on, and so on.

It is surely not without significance that this damning survey was highlighted not by management or Government but by the leader of our union. We moan, but who listens? It's a bit like singing in the bath: therapeutic for the singer, but everyone else just wants you to shut up.

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