OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM – NOVEMBER 25, 2019: The first day of eight-day strikes by the University and College Union (UCU), and its members gathered much attention from its members and supporters.
Photo by AIZAT K/Shutterstock.com
The UCU strike is at its peak. Since November, tutors, lecturers and students have been mobilizing around issues that are endangering the quality of higher education, such as pensions, fair pay and working conditions. The first strike action involved 60 institutions, and then continued as an “action short of a strike,” in which contractual obligations are fulfilled to the bare minimum and no extra work is taken on. Disrupting the daily functioning of the academic machine is vital for this struggle, but so is uncovering the symbolism that celebrates the neoliberal academia, starting from graduation.
I am not against the graduation ceremony per se. Quite the contrary, indeed. I know and respect how emotionally significant it is for many — for a wide range of different reasons. I understand how important it is to make your family proud, and, as a social scientist, I am also aware of the function of rituals. They have been central to human communities for millennia, celebrating milestones in someone’s own life and allowing an individual to join circles they were previously excluded from. The four years spent reading any literature that has the slightest connection to your project, arranging interviews, assembling all the data you have gathered into a coherent narrative, and — on top of that — trying to be innovative in your field, indeed deserve to be celebrated.
Still, this week I will not join my colleagues on the stage, and here is why.
Ever since I enrolled in my PhD program I received emails from my University Graduation Team, recruiting volunteers for more than 10 ceremonies spread across five days, which they described as an “ideal opportunity” to congratulate the graduands’ achievement. The first reason why I decided not to attend the ceremony is that as a reward for their time and labor, the organizing team offered to the prospective volunteers the opportunity to meet and network with scholars. Even a university like my alma mater, which boasts of a radical and disruptive tradition, reproduces a neoliberal paradigm that my generation is all too familiar with: one in which the payment for an actual job is not old-fashioned money, but rather a line on your CV and the possibility of coming into contact with someone who is already on the inside. This reinforces a culture of nepotism rather than meritocracy, where personal contacts and networks, rather than skills and qualifications, are what counts.
After my thesis defense, other emails added up. This time, they asked me if I wanted to join the ceremony and, even after I replied that I would not, the emails continued. They informed me about the deadline to register; that the deadline was close to expire; that it was very close to expire; that it was very very close to expire; and, finally that they had extended it, just in case I had changed my mind!
If I wanted to receive my diploma in person, I could have signed up through the system, paying for a gown I would wear for just a couple of hours, a selection of photos to mark the event (optional), and a ticket for each guest, for a total sum of minimum £120. But there are other costs too, such as bringing in families from abroad, arranging childcare, asking a day off work, and so on — they are not visible, but can inhibit participation all the same.
And this connects to the second reason I will not join the graduation, which is also at the very core of the current UCU strike. The fees British Universities charge to their domestic students are astronomical, and they increase even more when the students come from overseas. Currently, for a PhD, they are between £3,000 and £5,000 per year for UK/EU students and from £16,000 to £20,000 per year for international students. And what for? If you have followed the developments related to the strike, you know that most of this money does not end up with tutors or lecturers, who are working under extremely precarious conditions. There is a stark difference between early and mid-career staff and senior management — just consider nearly half of the UK vice-chancellors earn an average of £300,000 a year.
But that is not it. In-house scholarships and funding for PhDs are much more limited than the number of candidates accepted onto programs every year. Inequities are multifold: on the one hand, there is a difference between those who gain access to the prestigious Research Councils’ doctoral schemes and those who have other types of funding; on the other, there is a huge discrepancy in terms of resource and opportunity between those who have access to funding and those who do not.
Being able to rely on a regular income allows the candidate to dedicate their time to research and complementary activities, such as conferences, language courses or research skills training; all experiences that will help them to secure a career in the future. In many cases, funding bodies offer additional financial support for these kinds of activities.
On the contrary, if you start a PhD without a scholarship and are not financially independent, you have to resort to another job to finance what is supposed to be your main one. It could sound paradoxical but, actually, it fits perfectly with the university management’s assumption that PhD-level research is not a job and, as such, does not deserve the same rewards, guarantees or social security.
I know people — including myself — who have worked up to three jobs to make a living, often providing teaching to undergraduates that is paid by the hour, with no sick pay, annual leave allowance or guarantee of ongoing work. When you juggle between your research and your additional job(s), there is barely any time left to participate in conferences or to publish your research, which is essential in order to get an academic job afterwards.
Making sure that every single PhD candidate enters the scheme with a scholarship would send a clear message that it are the candidate’s skills the university is valuing, rather its ability to survive under extremely precarious circumstances. Several universities justify their fees arguing that all government support ceased in 2012, thus they are the only means through which they can survive as institutions. As much as I agree that the withdrawal of governmental support for higher education is a huge issue for the universities themselves, charging students such exorbitant fees for what is a public service does not seem the solution to me. Scraping the tuition fees, as Labour has been campaigning for, would also diversify the pool of students accessing university, which is another pressing matter for British society.
On another note, recently academia started discussing more openly mental health and the way it affects students and staff alike. I have followed several conversations about it and, although I appreciate that this issue is now on the table, I feel the elephant in the room is always funding. One of the strongest stress factors throughout my and some colleagues’ PhD has been the precariousness of our job and the inability to plan ahead or save money.
Prior to restructuring the university in order to give more security to the employees, I believe that we should be intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that it is not mindfulness — now widely offered by many universities and companies as a means to cope with stress — that will improve our condition, but social and financial security.
So, turning back to the graduation, you will have to forgive me if I do not feel like spending more on top of the fees I have already worked flat out to raise during these years. Starting a PhD remains a decision that has given me a lot, both in academic and personal terms. But, while I had the benefit of having a family back home that could support me if something went wrong along the way, there are many who are not so lucky.
One of the most important skills for a scholar is to point out the flaws of the system in the attempt to improve it; that is why I will not be on that stage.
Teresa Paoluzzi completed a PhD in social sciences in a UK university and is now working as a post-doctoral researcher.