Sarah Dobbs is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at University Centre at Blackburn College, and blogs for Friction Magazine on the rites of passage that are taking her from PhD to post. This is her third post.
Redundancy. There’s nothing pretty about it. Neither is frozen pay, cuts in wages and the plethora of other creative responses being considered in thanks to the current government’s funding strategy particularly attractive. No prizes for stating the obvious there. Still, needs must and this is what the impact of the cuts looks like in the institution I’m at. It’s a tricky time to be an early career lecturer, trickier still to get that first job.
At Blackburn, the lecturing jobs seem pretty safe and the Principal appears to want to avoid cutting pay. Administrative positions are in the firing line and voluntary redundancy consultations are taking place. But what is the impact of this on teaching? And how on earth do you get a new lecturing post in Creative Writing at this point?
There’s an air around work at the moment. It’s not dread and it’s not excitement about how these cuts could force us to take teaching to the next level, instead it’s all a bit static and a lot sad. On the one hand, it’s business as usual. We’re busy marking exams and preparing modules but we also know that colleagues will be leaving. How many, we’re not sure. Is this the end of the cuts? Again, we’re not sure and neither is the Principal. He acknowledges that the government’s various plans and cuts are continuing and that times are likely to be difficult until 2015. That feels far, far away. People are nervous.
Nervousness breed rumours
Michael Gove’s White Paper comments that the UK went from ’4th in the world for science to 14th‘ (Gove 2010: online) and 7th in the world for literacy to 17th. While I can see that these figures need addressing at national curriculum level, I don’t completely understand why this has meant funding for science and maths at undergraduate level is secure but is mainly withdrawn for English.
It was suggested at a recent staff meeting that schools would gain the power to decide what subjects they wanted to offer. If you’re in a climate where science and maths are supported throughout the levels of study and English is not, you have to wonder if this will result in the reduction of schools offering English. Changes at GCSE level must naturally impact undergraduate courses. But again, who knows?
If you look on my twitter feed @sarahjanedobbs and follow #ditl, you can see a typical day in my life. To keep productivity high the importance of staff working strictly to hours has been raised. The feed was a way of demonstrating everything else lecturers do after hours – their own research interests, staff development and creative practice. Having us work to hours of course makes sense but what it takes to teach your contracted hours are not the actual hours you work. Obvious, though I’m not sure there is universal awareness of this.
There is suggestion that research may suffer in the coming years. Cutting staff ‘s research hours and raising teaching hours may allow the institution to slim down their bank of staff. It’s realistic. If you don’t see any direct and immediate financial gain through granting research hours, cut it. And yet, research impacts HE within FE as much as anywhere else. Current research in action by colleagues includes a conference, a course book, various papers and modes of feedback.
Contributions to the institution
All of these contribute to the institution, developing the development and calibre of its teaching staff. This must then inform the student experience, positively impact retention and contributes to the institutions’ continued success. I’m not a financial analyst, I’m only concerned that in order to teach at university level, we need to pursue research otherwise learning and teaching becomes stagnant. My concern is what type of graduates might result from degrees taught by staff who are not research-active? What would the impact of this be on the economy?
So how to get or keep a job in this climate? I’m obviously no expert, but I have some ideas. To keep my job, and this is nothing to do with any future cuts or downsizing, I anticipate researching out of hours and making myself valuable in the sense of teaching time I do. Hours coming off my timetable for research will undoubtedly become more difficult to get condoned. However, getting a new job would be a different story altogether.
You need to be attractive to your institution. What makes them tick? Unlike my institution, at typical HE institutions, the onus on research appears to have taken on even more importance.
Colleagues who have recently attended interviews have this to say: REF REF REF.
Some typical questions:
- What funding have you recently received?
- How are you going to contribute to the upcoming REF?
Two questions, I have to say, that I wasn’t asked in three of my own interviews. So never mind them giving you a fat salary, you need to be demonstrating how you’re going to give them money. If you’re moving towards completion of your PhD, or even if you’re just starting, it would seem useful to be working on side-projects, getting published and applying for and winning funding. Some people do this throughout, but if you’re not doing it now, do it tomorrow.
Alternatively, be a rather successful / high-profile author.
Nobody who has done or is undertaking a PhD believes in the easy road, but I suppose the message is that you need to be planning your career years in advance. Engaging with why you’re doing a PhD from the get go, what you want to use it for, and what your future research might be is actually no bad thing.
Is there any good news?
At two recent conferences, the keynote speakers commented that in times like these Humanities subjects and creative arts tend to thrive. Basically, we discover creative ways of getting out of sticky situations. But how? Technology?
For the first time, Amazon noted in January that ebooks outsold paperbacks. With Waterstones announcing store closures, this is no small thing. The ability to self-publish with Kindle could then prove extremely useful for a variety of creative projects. In the past, getting published in print is the Holy Grail.
I don’t think the same mentality exists today and if it does, it’s slowly changing. If preferences are changing, e-publishing could allow both publishers and creatives to flourish rather than flounder. Similarly, in respect to teaching, a much bolder movement towards blended learning to account for students with more complex study patterns must be a good idea. Anyone have any other ideas to share?