Conrad Fallon discusses how the marketisation of education and precarious employment practices have impacted the teaching staff and students in universities during the pandemic.
The University of ManchesterTM LLP never lets a good crisis go to waste. The pandemic has been no different. After 2020 began with UCU strike action over pay, equality, work-loads and job security, Covid-19 allowed the university to expertly demonstrate the strikers’ point by laying off scores of workers on fixed-term contracts. In this self-defeating act, the university reduced its positive contribution to society and lost a wonderfully supportive and inspiring German language tutor.
I had the pleasure of being taught by her as part of the university’s Language Experience for All Programme (LEAP), which offers a year of weekly language courses to students and members of the public. Our class had about 15 people from around Greater Manchester, of different backgrounds, nationalities and ages, while she helped us navigate what can be an offensively abstruse language, encouraging us to speak and keeping us engaged. Together we were immersed in another culture, gained new skills and – at least personally – gained in confidence to speak with new people.
When the first lockdown came, she quickly adapted to online learning and soldiered through unreliable internet and byzantine learning software to keep the course running. Of course, that level of effort was typical for her; she’d been teaching at the university for the better part of a decade. However, her value was not recognised by the university, who, rather than supporting their staff through the uncertainty, took the pandemic as their chance to cut costs.
Typical for many staff, she had been employed since 2012 on a series of 10-month contracts. As these contracts need to be renewed every year, September was always a stressful month, when she couldn’t be sure if she would be asked to come back and teach her classes again next year. The precarious nature of her employment was heightened in the context of the university’s cuts to ‘less-profitable’ departments. For some years, Manchester had been restructuring the university language centre (ULC) which ran the LEAP courses, and had seen a round of redundancies in 2018. The plan was to integrate the ULC into language departments that hand out language degrees. Even during the first lockdown, she was told her job was safe. She was told a lie.
The pandemic arrived in a wash of uncertainty for everyone. While trying to teach our class, she – along with others from the ULC – had to figure out what the pandemic and restructuring meant for her job. After being personally told in April that all language tutors would be rehired next year, come May she learned via email that was no longer the plan. To use the stomach-turning euphemism, she would ‘not be rehired’. In anticipation of some inconceivably humongous loss of income, the chancellor warned of cost-saving measures. At the ULC, this resulted in the loss of 12 language tutors, and the cancellation of advanced courses in French, Spanish and German, and all courses in Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Korean and British Sign Language.
However, this humongous loss of income failed to materialise. The university’s main source of income is tuition fees; this is what they expected to lose because of the pandemic. Nationwide, though, admission rates in 2020 were higher than ever; the students may not be on campus, but their money sure is.
So, what has been lost? By cancelling language courses, the community cohesion brought by those classes is now lost, and access to those language skills is unavailable to people around the city. Language skills are culturally enriching and enable international co-operation. Even in biology (my subject), where most people can speak English to a certain extent, important meaning is lost whenever non-English-speaking scientists have to explain their work in English. More broadly, the dismembering of humanities departments is part of the transformation of our universities from centres of education to money-making engines*; humanities are seen as less translatable to industry. However, the cultural and social insights we lose when humanities are cut-back are self-defeating in the long run, as science – and all industry – exists in the contexts studied by humanities. What, furthermore, is the point of curing cancer, if there are no plays to see or music to listen to?
The joke, as it turns out, is on the uni. She is now teaching a course at Durham and still teaches a group of us from Manchester separately. She continues to bring people together and give people skills for life through the classes she teaches. The marketisation of education and precarious employment practices that led to her and others losing their jobs must end. The pandemic is no excuse.
*There is some irony, too, that this has been overseen by a government currently featuring graduates of supposedly Mickey-MouseTM subjects like English, PPE and Classics in the cabinet office, home office and 10 Downing Street respectively.
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Conrad Fallon is an MSc Developmental Biology student at The University of Manchester. On the whole, he likes the university, and is interested in education, healthcare and local government.