Today I am on strike to support the industrial action called by UCU over changes to the USS pension scheme and universities’ failure to make improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. You can find out more about the UCU strikes here: Everyone Out.
Having worked on short term contracts for much of my academic career, casualisation and precarity are causes particularly close to my heart and it’s appalling to see how contracts and conditions have deteriorated over the years. I experienced precarity working as a contact researcher for almost twenty years from 1997 to 2015 and I am well aware that my experience pales in comparison to the casualisation and exploitation that many academic colleagues, support staff and early career researchers are currently facing. It’s hard to overestimate the stress caused by constantly scrabbling to get your contract renewed, not knowing if you’ll be employed next month, next semester, next year, not being able to commit to this or that project because you don’t know if you’ll still have a job, not knowing if you’ll be able to pay the mortgage, the rent, the childcare. Coupled with wildly unrealistic workloads, grinding insecurity, invisible emotional labour, and an “always on” culture exacerbated by social media, it’s hardly any wonder that higher education is facing a mental health crisis.
But. Here’s the thing, when your personal commitments and professional identity are so tied up with an exploitative system, where do you draw the line? This is something I’ve grappled with for years. I currently work 0.8 fte at an institution where my primary responsibility is to support uptake and engagement with open education and OER. I’m immensely privileged to work in a field I love at an institution with a strong civic mission and a real commitment to openness and sharing knowledge. I also have a long standing commitment to open education and social justice that stretches back for well over a decade and I use the time I’m not employed by my institution to contribute my labour to other organisations and initiatives that support like minded goals, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes in a more formal capacity, as a Trustee or committee member, sometimes just for fun. These include #Femedtech, ALT, Wikimedia UK, the Open Knowledge Open Education Working Group and Open Scotland. But when my own personal and political commitments and activism are so interwoven with my professional employment the boundaries become blurred and it’s hard to know where, if anywhere, to draw the line. I’ve written about the issue of open education and invisible labour before, and I still don’t have any good answers to the questions I raised in this post: Open Practice and Invisible Labour.
So although I am supporting the UCU strikes today, and I will be back on the digital picket line next week, I have not cancelled a commitment to take part in a free event hosted by Wikimedia DE and ALT in Berlin this week on the theme of Open for a cause: fostering participation in society and education. I’ve done a lot of soul searching to reach this decision, and I’m not sure if it’s the right one, however I believe that many of the conversations that will be aired at this event are directly relevant to the systemic issues plaguing higher education, which the UCU strike is calling for action on. I’m still deeply conflicted about this decision, but this is where I’m drawing the line, even if it’s terribly blurred. In lieu of striking for the three days I’ll be in Berlin, I’ve made a contribution to the UCU Fighting Fund instead.