Don’t pity stressed students too much – academics have it worse

Growing interest in the student mental health crisis is welcome, but it is overburdened hourly paid lecturers who are most at risk of stress in universities, says Sam Christie

February 5, 2018
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More and more students are reporting significant mental health issues. This should not come as a surprise; life seems to have become more complex, more information intensive.

It’s clear that the young are responding to the society in which they find themselves, having to navigate social media, financial difficulty, increasing expectation and competition – the list can go on.

However, although this may sound harsh, students at least have options.

If they find their study to be either “a waste of money” or “bad for their health”, they can move on. According to the government, some 491,300 apprenticeships started in 2016-17; I recently noticed an apprenticeship available for a trainee skydiving instructor earning £240 a week, which I would gladly have applied for if I weren’t 45 with a PhD.

Academics are not so mobile. Once you have completed your PhD, you have often been outside the workplace for several years and your research most likely points you towards a university career, whether or not this is likely to damage your mental well-being.

And damage mental health it does. Many academics are simply unable to cope with increased workloads and university strategies that force them to be both dynamic teachers and energetic researchers, but with no time to actually do either role well.

Universities are unable to guide academics about the future because of the uncertainties posed by political developments, such as Brexit and its potential consequent funding crisis. It is as if universities have decided that the only way to survive the coming years is to pare everything down to such lean levels that they will be able to respond in an “agile” way: a management term invented to obfuscate the erosion of job security and one that amounts to a heartless battening-down of the hatches for both students and staff.

It is likely that few will shed tears for academics who until fairly recently had it quite good.

But my own experience in a new teaching job has made clear to me that those times are long gone.

I am an associate lecturer, which means that I am paid by the hour. I am well paid for one hour of work, but this must include preparation time, holiday pay and any sick pay; and if calculating contact time and preparation time alone, I can confidently say that I am paid less than the minimum wage. For the nearly full-time contact hours I work, I am paid less than two-thirds what I would receive if in contracted employment.

There is also the issue of actually learning the practical details necessary to get the job done. When I joined my university, in somewhat of a last-minute “agile” appointment, there was no time for, or inclination to give, any induction into the labyrinthine computer systems that house such critical items as timetables and pay sheets. If you don’t understand the system by some lucky osmotic transfer of knowledge, you won’t find your classrooms, won’t be able to operate your classroom technology and – this was the killer – won’t get paid; I wasn’t paid for two months.

You would imagine that the experience of the associate lecturer must have some benefits. After all, we get more choice about when we work, surely? This is also not the case.

Most of the time a university’s attitude is, “if you can’t fit into the timetable, you won’t get the hours available” and “if you turn down hours, you might find yourself being sidelined completely”. The more hours you do, the more students you teach, and, therefore, the more marking you must do. I recently spent the entire Christmas holiday marking, which my university claims is time included in my hourly rate. Every time you take on more hours, you require more preparation; so all in all, many lecturers now, whether sessional or not, are working well over full-time hours for part-time money.

My colleagues have been as supportive as possible given their own time constraints, further amplifying the sense that lecturers are in essence fighting fires on a daily basis, managing to keep themselves and each other afloat by the skin of their teeth.

So where does this leave the students? They are, after all, paying for this privilege. In short, it leaves them short-changed, and because the sessional lecturer is not provided with a desk or a computer (at least I haven’t been), students can’t find me when they finally do have a mental health crisis.

I had, for example, one student I had taught for 11 weeks before the university revealed that he was autistic. Materially, they suggested that I was to plan separate sessions for him; I have no time for this – it just could not be done.

This hourly sessional work is a gig. And much like a musician who turns up, delivers the material and leaves, that’s how we operate. This is not a “learning journey” for students or a chance for them to develop themselves, this is them paying £9,000 a year to be taught by people who are not supported, not given any time to develop as teachers or researchers and, most importantly, are at breaking point. The system is a mess.

Sam Christie is an associate lecturer in media production at Southampton Solent University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Well, let's be honest: universities have hitherto been able to rely on a large pool of talent from Europe. It's inevitable that wages will be low and permanent contracts scarce.

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