Around Easter I wrote a post about cuts to my animation course. This was a very difficult time for our students as well as us as tutors. I did not write this post to cause trouble or to put Tower Hamlets College down – but it was rather a cry for help, a story about our wonderful courses and the worrying developments which will eventually bring on their closure.
my personal experience
Hoping to make our senior management aware of our worries and the contributing factors to this situation I sent the link to our new principal. I was asked to go see him about this – and at that point I was ready to be challenged on my decision of writing such a public statement, and to bear the consequences. And though the meeting did not bring much direct progress on the issues I raised – I found our new principal to be a very professional as well as understanding man. He took time to discuss the course and related issues as well as my apparent need to go public with my opinion.
In the past, my experience with senior managers overall had not been great (and I am talking about my teaching experience in other places, not THC, here). Usually, though you might be called in for a conversation – it is pretty clear that the meeting is merely a token gesture, so really just a waste of time, as the manager in question does not actually listen at all. I’m sure this is common in a lot of work places.
My meeting with our new principal at THC however was very different. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that he had carefully considered my email and blog post before our meeting and that he was making time to talk to me and really listened to what I had to say. So I left the meeting feeling that the change of leadership at THC was very positive and that our new principal would bring hope for the future. We were in good hands.
I was hopeful that things would change for the better if some of the issues affecting our recruitment were addressed. And towards the end of the year I actually had – for the first time in about 3 years – some interviews with potential students for the following academic year, a sign of improved marketing and better visibility of our courses, perhaps? — I was feeling a little more optimistic again.
And then the shit hit the fan (please excuse the harsh words).
changes through funding cuts
Announcements of cuts to ESOL, redundancies etc….
Before I carry on – I’d just like to say that I am not very political person and being only part-time at the college I have to admit that I am not really interested in understanding the college politics in depth or claim to know how the finances of any community college are done. I have always thought that the educational system in the UK is flawed and the funding cuts by the government to education have already caused damage to adult education specifically over the last few years – with this situation now getting worse in the current economic climate.
I don’t consider myself a teacher/tutor or whatever you’d like to call it. I’m a webdesigner who also teaches – so teaching is my second job and I love it. But my interest and focus is not with the college and its politics – it lies only with my students to ensure their education, their learning of new skills and ultimately their progression towards their personal goals. One of the reasons why I love working at THC has always been that I would have the chance to make a difference to people who might not be able to afford further training in other places – the community aspect is very important to me. I love sharing my knowledge and helping my student explore their talents and blossom into the creative professionals they want to be.
I am also a member of the UCU as I believe in a democratic process and feel the principle of ‘power to the people’ is vital, especially considering how management often loses touch with its workforce. So despite not being the most active of members I did consider the union to be important and overall an empowering organisation (though I am reconsidering my opinion at the moment).
So when the cuts were announced at the end of last year – the union called a strike to protest against these cuts and redundancies. In principle – I would agree. But then it became clear that the strike action called for was to be indefinite, announcing strike days already for september, at the very start of the new academic year… This worried me immensely – and it did not feel right to plan so far ahead without even allowing time for negotiations or considering that these issues might be addressed and resolved before the start of another academic year. I went into the summer worried and unsettled and carried on with my own freelance work, hoping once september came these issues might be resolved.
On the first day back at the end of August – I attended the union meeting to hear news and updates. I was impressed with the progress the union had made and felt that both senior management and the union had come far. The more the meeting went on however – the more personal the angle seemed to become. The union’s criticism seemed to become more and more narrow minded and focused on bringing down one man, our principal – rather than changing a situation for the better. As I mentioned, I don’t claim to understand the politics behind this and from my point of view I could not understand why this action seemed to be so specifically against the management at our college – where I would think we should rather be acting against government decisions on funding cuts.
I don’t mean to sound like I am defending the management either – I truly do not know whether their decisions of implementing cuts etc are right or wrong and so far I had thought I could trust the union and their take on the politics involved. But talking to our union reps and people actively involved in the strike action later on – I was starting to feel more and more uncomfortable with their proceedings…
The angle of blaming one person for everything that has been going wrong at the college over the years – and for cuts put in place by a government that clearly does not give education the importance it deserves – seems very distorted and wrong to me.
So when the strike was announced to be carried on – throughout the days of enrolment – my heart sank. Not knowing what to think or do – I feel myself now very upset by this. Completely torn – I remained at home during the first 2 days of the strike, hoping for a resolution by the start of open enrolment the following week. I did not feel I could cross the picketline but could also not support the action by actively participating as I did not agree with the decision of the union.
Considering the importance of enrolment however – and the fact that it was left to only a very limited number of people to do the work of many – I could not bring myself to stay away and not go into college. I really struggled to come to this decision – not being sure what to do. I do believe in the principle of the union – but I do not believe that a strike which will cause such disruption at the very beginning of the academic year is justified. For me, this action is like a boycott of our student’s education, our own jobs – rather than a positive action to bring on change. So the following week with the start of open enrolment I finally decided to go to work as normal.
I write this as the enrolment week is over and the strike action continues. And I have to admit that I have never felt so disheartened and depressed about my courses. It was without doubt the worst week I ever experienced at THC. Having to go through the line of my colleagues on strike was very hard as well as upsetting and made me feel like a traitor. Though at the same time I really could not change my mind about going in to do my job as I completely disagree with the union’s attitude.
Inside the college – only a limited number of people were there – with line / senior managers all working hard to keep the enrolment running as smoothly as possible despite the strike. There is no way to tell how much the strike outside the college really affected numbers on enrolment – but I have no doubt that especially our adult courses in Creative Arts have been affected quite substantially.
As the week went on – it became harder and harder … only very few adults came in, reports of how union strikers had approached people outside, trying to stop students from enrolling (saying things like “if you go in now to enrol – people will lose their jobs” etc) became more frequent, worrying us a great deal… Though I would like to point out that the overall consensus within the union had been not to be this pushy or disruptive to the potential students themselves so it is likely that this was done by only a few of the strikers. Police and security were also there to ensure that people were not physically stopped from entering the college.
For me, going outside for a quick fag break would end up in a conversation with the union guys – being challenged on my position as union member not supporting the strike action and this also became more and more intense. A few snippets from what I was told by various people on the picketline who tried to convince me to join the strike and my responses:
- “the letters from the principle saying thanks to people who are in to work during enrolment are just a manipulative gesture to undermine the union”
really…? have you seen how stressful it is in there? Trying to make sure that we do enrol students for our courses and that there are actually jobs left once the strike is over has been hard work, especially for our line managers and admin staff… so the letter was actually an acknowledgement of this, in my view.
- “he (principal) just wants to squash the union – he’s testing us”
feels to me like the other way around, considering the progress made over the summer.
- “they’ve put a businessman in charge who wants to run the college as a business and make profit – a ridiculous concept and he has to be stopped”
again, why is the strike not against government decisions? Seems to me that everything is changing with funding and education so how do you know that it is not necessary for our college to survive by making a profit now to secure our future?
- “only weak people are going in – as they feel bullied by management”
??? WHAT?!? didn’t realise I was being weak or being bullied, sorry… I actually feel it cost me more strength to go in than simply stay at home and avoid all conflict…
- “it is unbelievable how much abuse staff have to take at this college”
??? W-H-A-T !!!??? Now we’re being abused? How?
- “people are being bullied by management”
really? well, I feel quite bullied by you, actually….
Apparently now – the focus is shifting, the union has a lot of support from other unions and seems determined to strike however long it will take. The support from other unions to me just highlights the fact that this strike should be against the government and its funding cuts – rather than be a strike for one single college, focusing on one man and his team. I may be naive and ill-informed about these sort of issues but I cannot support an action that becomes so petty and seems more like a power struggle than a drive for change.
So the strike continues – causing chaos for weeks to come, or worse: without enough students – we will lose our courses and our jobs.
Though I started the week feeling very torn whether I had made the right decision to go to work – the more time went on the more obvious it became to me that this action had turned into a quite vindictive and almost personal campaign against the principal, a very unsettling attitude in my eyes. Though I think my time at THC is now coming to an end – I feel the management has dealt with this situation very well. Senior managers and the principal himself were around throughout enrolment, working alongside everyone else, talking to us, trying to keep up morale – we were brought lunch and cups of tea and generally the proceedings went very well – the students who did come in were looked after as best as we could manage and will hopefully not feel too intimidated or affected by the strike action. It was great to see how everyone was pulling together to get the work done.
I started my post with telling you about my experience with the new principal as I wanted to let you know how he dealt with me and my blog post. I personally feel that he is very good for the college. It was about time for strong leadership – and a more direct approach to dealing with issues. The new principal actually communicates directly with us – informing us about decisions made – rather than us either receiving a letter ‘on behalf of…’ or being informed by our heads of department – we actually hear from him directly. So I am quite sad that it might be the end for me here when the college finally has a strong principal who might bring a brighter future.
However – for myself, my teaching team and my courses – the situation looks worse than ever. Student numbers are at an all-time low at the end of enrolment week. We still have time to recruit more students but I do not trust a hope and fear we will lose our courses this year. With enrolment having been bad over the last years already – I would usually spend all my spare time with emailing former students asking them to spread the word, finding free online listings, producing promotional flyers etc (with my team as well as former students offering to go around to drop these off in various places)… etc… this year however with a lot of client work on, I literally do not have the time to spend on all this extra promotion and so I fear this will now bring on the end for my courses, affecting 8 people who teach with me.
My worry is that though the union are trying to save a certain number of jobs (already reduced from 40 to about 12-13, from what I understand) — they will actually cost even more people their jobs as we will not have enough students enrolled to run all our courses.
At the end of this week I had a strong urge to simply give up, hand in my resignation right there and then… as I simply cannot do this any more… But my urge of not deserting the small team left now during such hard times won and I will wait and see, helping out as much as I can to get everyone else’s classes taken care of ~ still hoping mine might survive as well.
But maybe it really is time for me to leave THC — the politics of such a large college which after all is mainly focused on 6th form are doing my head in. I am very passionate about teaching and can usually ignore all this as soon as I am in the room with my students. This is what I’m there for – to teach. And I could go somewhere else – but having spent so much time on improving my courses and building up such a great team – I feel reluctant to do so and start again from scratch.
But now, with this strike which seems ever so vindictive and misdirected and the low numbers… I feel very down and unsure about the future. Sad as it might be – I would miss teaching terribly – maybe this proves once again that as a practicing professional working within education the politics are simply too much to handle.