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2:59pm on Wednesday, 1st February, 2023:

Striking Behaviour


I had to pass through a picket line to get to work today, because many of my colleagues are on strike. I'm not a member of the University and College Union because I'm part-time; this means that if I didn't go to work today, my job would be at risk (only union members are protected from disciplinary action). Fortunately, there's no intimidation on the picket lines (it's all very civilised); you just have to take one of their leaflets and you're through.

The union's grievances are valid and apply across the whole university secotr. The strike therefore also applies across the whole university sector (or at least ones where the UCU has a foothold). However, because the strike is across the whole sector, this means that individual universities can't come to agreements with union branches. It doesn't matter how much Essex University is willing to concede, that won't end the strike.

My own frustrations with my job are related to, but more specific than, how the government treats universities or how the university sector treats Essex University. They're to do with how Essex University treats our department, the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. Essex University is basically a Social Sciences university, and a very good one at that. The science departments have gradually been closed down (Chemistry), merged into other departments (Physics merged with Electronic Engineering, which then merged with Computer Science) or saved by spinning off something non-core but wildly popular (Biology begat Sports Science). The university tried to close down Mathematics a few years ago, until Essex County Council put a stop to it on the grounds that you can't call yourself a university if you don't have a mathematics department.

CSEE, Law and the Essex Business School are the largest departments and are effectively that cash cows that let the rest of the university flourish. However, they also drag it down. This is because the larger a department is, the less its students like it, so the lower the ratings they give us in the polls that are used to inform those newspapers that produce university ranking tables. The lower student survey marks also arise because we're over-worked. People in Psychology or History or Philosophy are also over-worked, of course, but not to the extent that we are. Our problem is that we need more members of staff than we have.

OK, so we do have all the positions we need to cover the work we have to do, but they're not all filled. We're about 20 members of staff short. This puts pressure on our existing members of staff, some of whom snap and leave for universities with a better staff/student ratio than us; ours is good in theory, but not currently in practice. You can't really blame them, but a high turnover among junior members of staff perpetuates the problem. A shortage of office space doesn't help, either.

As a result of all this, CSEE regularly under-performs in all the university's Key Performance Indicators. If we weren't a cash cow, we'd be in danger of closure (we've been close in the past), but we are so we're not. However, the university is constantly foisting new initiatives upon us to improve our KPIs. This wouldn't be so bad if they removed the previous initiatives that didn't work, but the new ideas all go on top of these. It bogs us down. Having to mark 200 assignments is one thing; having to mark them within three weeks of the deadline is another; having to mark the assignments that came in a week late within two weeks is a third; having to provide meaningful feedback is a fourth. Including the marking of exam papers, we're supposed to spend no more than 30 minutes assessing each student. It takes more like 75 minutes — or 30 minutes if you give assignments a superficial read and don't care about feedback quality.

Sorting out this kind of departmental suffering is what I'd go on strike for. Unfortunately, the way to fix the problem is to reduce student numbers for a period so that staff don't leave at the same rate they arrive. Reducing student numbers would make us no longer a cash cow, though, which would weaken our position and undoubtedly lead to other reasons why staff would leave (having to share offices, for example). It could also make the university ponder once more on the topic of whether CSEE was a good fit with its brand.

Ultimately, we have too many universities in the UK and too many people attending them who are not academically inclined. I don't see that the UCU will be striking to reduce the number of universities and so make many of its members redundant, so we're pretty well stuck as we are.

Fortunately, I have to retire within 4 years anyway so don't really care how things go after that.

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