Forget the ivory tower - lecturers are working class too

Opinion: Most academics are not relaxing in the south of France – they are struggling

To think lecturers are not attuned to working class issues, when they often struggle to make ends meet, is an utterly uninformed attitude. Photo: iStock

To think lecturers are not attuned to working class issues, when they often struggle to make ends meet, is an utterly uninformed attitude. Photo: iStock

 

The ongoing pensions strike in the UK has brought renewed attention to an issue which, every few years, stirs unnecessary discord: public sector pay.

It is a particularly fraught topic in Ireland, with the consensus being that educators are overpaid and underworked: “Sure look at the holidays they get,” being the common expression.

Arguments over this issue quickly descend into divisive argument: everyone works harder than the other person, everyone else doesn’t realise how good they have it by comparison.

It has long been a source of amusement to me that we associate work ethic with profession, when the reality is that someone’s job title is not at all indicative of workplace application.

There are lecturers who do 70-hour weeks, often more – including in the summer, some of you may be stunned to hear – and there are lecturers who do the bare minimum and make the most of the flexibility their schedules afford.

There are also people in the private-sector who work every waking hour, and those who clock in at nine and clock off at five, with life outside the office truly reserved for life outside the office.

Some people are always working, and some people fulfil their contractual obligations to the absolute letter.

The extent to which one “works” is largely about the individual, not their job – it should be no great revelation that there are toilers and apathetic types in both the public and private sector.

The problem is that we, as members of the general public, never focus on the individual, we focus on the profession, and when we see other professions asking for more, we let our worst traits – greed, jealousy, a lack of empathy – come to the fore.

Working class

The most recent occurrence of this cycle is at play in the UK, where the decision by third-level teaching staff to take to the picket lines in response to the decimation of their pensions is further contributing to what is already a dangerous division between public and private sector workers.

Put aside the ideological argument that those who serve the State should receive a pension. Even the most devout of Hiberno-Tories must agree that their all-powerful market must account for the elderly, and if any state is to offer education to the masses, it should ensure that long-term provisions are made for those who would provide it.

Ireland’s left has been at odds with itself across several issues in recent months, and monitoring the exchange on social media, a curious attitude is present: academics don’t get a say on class politics, because academics – supposedly – know nothing about the challenges of the working class.

This position emerges from the same misplaced perceptions that give rise to attitudes denying public sector workers a fair pension.

The reality of the profession stands in stark contrast to the common impression: many educators are working class.

Short-term contracts

Let’s break this down for anyone who views Marx and Engels as frightful bogeymen whose ideas should be avoided by any right-thinking member of good old blue-blooded Irish society.

The “working class” are those members of society who do most of the work but tend not to reap most of the economic rewards; it’s the people who control the means of production, the directors, the owners, the shareholders, it’s these people who actually prosper.

“Work hard and you’ll be rich” is the great myth of capitalism – work hard, and you’re far more likely to generate wealth for someone else.

The people who do most of work in our society do it in return for a wage, and as is the norm in capitalist society, the people who pay these wages do their utmost to keep them low, so that they can keep more of the profits for themselves.

Working-class people are thus responsible for the creation of society’s wealth, but they do not share in it.

What’s important here is that we understand what is meant by working class, because it has become an increasingly prevalent part of Ireland’s broader political debate.

If one accepts this simple description of the working class as valid, then one can surely see how it can be readily applied to a great number of our educators?

It is true to say that the salaries get competitive towards the top of the pyramid, but this is the very same in the private sector; if you are to judge the typical salary of a lecturer you shouldn’t look at what their university’s president is earning, just as you wouldn’t judge the remuneration of the clerks in your local bank based on the salaries of their directors.

Many of the people teaching Ireland’s future generations are on fixed and short-term contracts, and in some cases, on no contract at all, paid only for a small portion of the actual work that they do.

For many, getting a secure contract is their wildest dreams. A full-time post starts at about €32,000 per annum. That, remember, is typically only achieved after a decade’s worth of training.

Professional aspirations

The idea that university teachers spend two terms in the classroom and then the rest in the south of France is just absurd.

The performance in the classroom is a hugely important, but logistically minuscule part of the job: lecturers do not just teach, but spend hours creating and revising lesson plans so that their classes are worthwhile, and when they are done with that, they have a myriad of administrative responsibilities to attend to.

Assessments must be marked, feedback must be provided, and students must be supported.

When one does reach that brief moment of quiet, which usually comes sometime in July, they have to research and publish, or as is well-known in academic circles, their professional aspirations will perish.

Many lecturers work tirelessly to ensure their students achieve their objectives, and then they must also work to achieve their own – but here is the catch. Lecturers are humans, and humans burn out, and they burn out far more quickly when denied decent professional and living conditions.

Struggle

I secured my first academic job in my late-20s, and it was overseas, so comparatively well-paid to what one might receive in Ireland. Returning home for personal reasons, I had to take a significant pay cut.

I like to think that I am good at what I do – I certainly try to routinely improve at it – but the reality of Ireland’s sustained brain-drain is that I would not be doing it here if here wasn’t home.

Even by the time I had secured that first full-time position overseas, a lot of my friends were already five or six years into their careers, climbing the corporate ladder towards salaries that most educators might, if they are very lucky and work very hard and grease the right wheels, achieve sometime in their 50s.

I grew up in a working-class household, and while I am a lecturer, I still consider myself to be working class.

I am not a homeowner. I worry about rent. I worry about bills. I don’t go on expensive holidays. I don’t drive a white Audi.

People keep saying to me, “Ah, a young fella like yourself should be settling down now”. Settle down? With what?

I am not saying that Ireland’s private sector workers aren’t also part of this country’s forgotten generation.

I am simply saying it is a complete fallacy to think the teaching professions are immune from socio-economic challenges or that lecturers know nothing of class struggle.

Let down

I have seen so many great educators leave the profession; the return on one’s investment is simply too low.

For many, the pursuit of the qualifications necessary to become a lecturer is too expensive, and even when you are privileged enough to secure funding for long-term study, in many disciplines you’re looking at under the minimum wage.

It is sad to see age-old misconceptions about educators, particularly in relation to what they earn and how they occupy their time, persist.

To think lecturers are not attuned to working-class issues when they work with underprivileged students on a daily basis and are, themselves, often struggling to make ends meet, is an utterly uninformed attitude.

Educators in the UK are fighting to retain modest pensions, so that they might not be facing into poverty once their years of working to provide a future for every little Timmy that comes under their charge come to an end.

We should support such a cause, and remember to support it the next time something similar is on the agenda closer to home.

James O’Sullivan (@jamescosullivan) is lecturer in digital arts & humanities at University College Cork