The following has been written by an academic member in a personal capacity.
I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently: whether you stand, torn and unsure about what to do, outside a picket line, or walk straight through, head down and headphones on. I have been wondering how hollow it may sound to say that your striking lecturers care about you, especially with your assessments coming up.
You may think that we’re just being self-interested. Don’t we realise the kind of chronically precarious, frightening, debt-laden world which lies ahead of you? Don’t we realise what it means to strike now, as you prepare for your dissertations or important exams -perhaps even your finals?
Honestly, yes we do, and it’s tearing us in two. At the same time, we can’t stand by and passively accept what is happening to our universities. This isn’t just about our pensions. The people you see on the picket lines now are the same ones who marched against raising your tuition fees, who fight against cuts to your support services, who put time and energy into widening participation schemes.
But none of that quite cuts to the core of what we mean when we say we love our students, we love our university, and we think both are being damaged. So I wanted to write to you and try to explain. To do that means I risk you thinking me ridiculous, or becoming the focus of your anger. But I have been asking an awful lot of you lately, so it seems only fair that I try to explain.
Here goes: I am striking because I was an undergraduate student at Edinburgh University too, over twenty years ago. My generation didn’t just get our tuition fees paid; we got a maintenance grant too, if our families weren’t well off. I was one of those students. I remember unpacking in Pollock Halls and thinking: I am so lucky. This is my room now; this is my life; here it starts. And start it did – I ran shows at the Bedlam theatre; learned to wipe the floor with the opposition in a debate; lobbied for better support for disabled students as EUSA’s Equal Opportunities officer. Life exploded with colour and possibility.
The supporting cast for this transformation were my lecturers. There was Lee Spinks, who could hold forth on Keats with such swagger and charisma that a hall of 400 students (mostly) forgot their hangovers. Olga Taxidou, whose hawkish intelligence and passionate intensity made me think that maybe I should give Brecht another go after all. Kindly, grandmotherly Karina Williams, who ws visibly in love with all things eighteenth century. The loud, funny Aussie, Steve Cramer, who knew me well enough to spot when I was seriously ill with depression, before I even understood what that was: Steve, who walked me to the counsellor’s office and sat quietly beside me until I could get help.
Finally, there was Faith Pullin: who lectured me in nineteenth and twentieth century women’s writing, as well as feminist theory. This was revolutionary because I had read only two novels by women in my entire life. I was 21 and in my third year as an English Lit student, but my experience was that producing great literature was something men did. Taking those courses was like walking from a silent hall into a loud, raucous party, where women across the ages were laughing, arguing, falling in love, singing: Jean Rhys, Virginia Wolf, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, bell hooks. I read everything I could get my hands on.
I know Faith had to fight to get those courses included in the English Literature syllabus. Managers felt that there might be enough student interest in such ‘minority subjects’ to justify her time and energy. It wasn’t, they said, ‘efficient’. In some ways, the managers had a point: there were only eight of us on the feminist theory course. But it was of so much value to those of us who took it. You see, Faith had this rare and beautiful gift of enabling others to speak. So we sat in her office on the 6th floor of DHT throughout a hot summer term and we just talked.
We talked about our bodies and our minds; we talked about the limitations and constraints we experienced; others’ expectations of us. We talked about our mothers and their lives, about our grandmothers and their lives; about how we hoped that our lives might be different. We talked about fear, hurt, rage and the dream that our generation might be able to change the status quo. Often when the seminar had finished we drifted onto the Meadows and just kept reading and talking, until the light faded.
It was that education which gave me the courage to work as a journalist on the top news programmes in the world; to investigate shady organisations which tried their best to intimidate me; to try and give voice to those who are silenced and exploited. To say I was a ‘satisfied consumer’ of my educational experience is to totally miss the point. My university education changed me in ways which have resonated throughout my whole life. That’s the point.
I don’t know what your transformation would be – it’s likely to be totally different to mine. But I came back to universities after other careers precisely because I want to help you to have that opportunity: to enable you to reimagine who you are, and what your life will be about, in conversation with those whose work you read, and those you meet along the way. That’s the heart of it for me: I want to be able to pass on to you this wonderful, precious thing that I was given – a higher education worth the name.
But I can’t hope to create that kind of learning environment for you if my classes become so large I don’t know your name, let alone who you are. I can’t do it if I am stressed and run down by a long hours culture which leaves little time for my home life, including my partner, child and elderly parents. I can’t do it if I am not given a secure job and am left anxious about never being good enough, never having done enough. I can’t do it if I have to run consultancies or other jobs on the side, to prevent being poor in my old age. I can’t do it if universities become dominated by a narrow, market logic which values only what is cheap and, in so doing, gradually kills off the magic, the joy I’ve been talking about.
I want to work in a university which stands for more than a market brand, which realises that its lifeblood is our collective belief in empowerment, freedom and the potential for transformative change. That’s why I will keep striking until we are heard. We are getting there – there is now a massive, UK-wide movement demanding that university managers and politicians think again about the value of a university education, of academics and students, in our society.
So please keep supporting us – we can’t do this without you. In the words of Alice Walker, “Anything we love can be saved”.