Tag: strike

Learning how to see: industrial action in universities and the nursing workforce

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Photo by @sarawhittam

I take the view that ‘everything is connected to everything else’, to use a phrase I recently learn is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. More on him later.

Over the past week I’ve been involved in industrial action as part of #UCUStrikesBack. What I’m not going to do in this post is to explain why university staff are currently on strike, largely because this has already been adequately covered elsewhere (for example, see here and here). Instead, I want to share some picket-line reflections linking what happens in universities with what happens in the health service. These are connections which are not being made frequently enough, including by some who should know better.

As a mental health nurse academic I am acutely aware of the perilous position occupied by my profession in the NHS, with reports from earlier in 2019 pointing to a loss of 6,000 mental health nurses in NHS England since 2009. Below is a graph, created using NHS Digital data, which starkly reveals the current situation:

MHN numbers 2019As an aside, data of this type are not published here in Wales. They should be. In any event, quite correctly much concern has been expressed about this startling decline in the workforce, with mental health nursing now singled out as a group needing particular help to improve both recruitment and retention.

Reflecting my position as a health professional academic I hold joint membership of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The RCN, along with other health service unions like Unite and Unison, is trying to reverse the crisis facing the nursing workforce. It is campaigning on safe staffing, has published a manifesto to assist nurses wanting to interrogate prospective parliamentary candidates ahead of the December 2019 general election, and through its Fund our Future campaign is lobbying government to reverse the removal of tuition fee and living cost support for students of nursing in England.

These campaigns are important. So far, however, in its public pronouncements the RCN has failed to make the necessary connections between working conditions in universities and the present and future education of student nurses. Put simply, an adequate supply of educated, evidence-minded, person-centred nurses demands an adequate supply of secure, well-supported, fairly paid nurse educators and researchers. Nurse academics typically have career trajectories which are significantly different from those in other fields, with implications for their recruitment, retention and development. The modern norm for historians, physicists and sociologists seems to involve years of precarious, post-doctoral, employment characterised by repeated short-term contracts before landing (if ever) much sought-after full-time academic posts. In contrast, with some exceptions nurses are generally recruited into higher education by dint of their practitioner expertise, their posts linked to the servicing of courses of professional study. This was certainly how it was for me: my academic career commenced with an initial series of short-term employment contracts associated with the leading of a post-qualification course for community mental health nurses. In all universities, nurse academics can soon find themselves carrying major teaching and course management responsibilities, often for programmes and modules of study which run more than once across a single year. Demanding education and education-related workloads can squeeze out time for research, scholarship and wider engagement, in workplaces which traditionally value productivity in these areas for the purposes of career progression.

Expanding the number of nurses to fill the gaps which now exist, for which the RCN and others are rightly campaigning, requires thought and careful planning. In the run-up to the general election both are in short supply as nursing numbers become reduced to political soundbites. More student nurses must mean more nurse academics, but in any future rounds of staff recruitment potential entrants will have their eyes wide open. The erosion of university pensions relative to pensions in the NHS does nothing to encourage those contemplating the leap from health care into higher education (or, at least, into that part of the sector in which the Universities Superannuation Scheme predominates). Very reasonably, those considering future careers as nurse academics will also want to weigh up the appeal of doing work which is undoubtedly creative and rewarding with what they will hear about workloads, developmental opportunities and work/life balance.

I also learn, this week, that Leonardo da Vinci saw the making of connections as necessary in order that we might see the world as it truly is. In my working world, education, research and practice are intimately intertwined. It is disappointing that these connections are being missed by organisations which campaign on the state of nursing and the NHS, but which do not (as a minimum) also openly acknowledge the concerns that nursing and other academics have regarding the state of universities. Right now, some words of solidarity and support would not go amiss.

Why I’m on strike

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Paul Brown, me, Graeme Paul-Taylor: thanks to Kerry Hood for the photo.

I have a fantastic job, which I enjoy very much. But today I haven’t been doing it. I came into it in 1997, leaving a post as a community mental health nurse in East London to relocate to South Wales as a Lecturer in Community Nursing at what was then the University of Wales College of Medicine (UWCM). As a family we made this move even though my initial contract was fixed for a two year term. It was renewed for a further two years, and only then did I become a permanent member of staff. As part of making my transition from the NHS into higher education I transferred my health service pension into the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

I was recruited into UWCM with the chief responsibility of leading a full-time, post-registration, course preparing nurses to work in community mental health settings. I led that programme for 14 years, and over that time taught many hundreds of registered nurses and helped them on their way towards specialist, regulatory body-approved, qualifications. I have continued to contribute to, and to lead, modules involving many other groups of health care professional students, all the way from pre-registration undergraduate through to post-registration postgraduate. I have supervised and assessed umpteen student dissertations, and have supervised and examined many postgraduate researchers. I very much value my work with students, and think that I’m reasonably good at it.

Then there are the other bits of my job, which nowadays occupy as much, or more, of my time as teaching and teaching-related activities. Over the years I have become a researcher, working with excellent colleagues here and elsewhere on projects examining features of the mental health system. I help with the running of the School of Healthcare Sciences as a manager and mentor of valued colleagues, and contribute to the work of a large number of committees and groups. I do work external to Cardiff University, including with Mental Health Nurse Academics UK, at other higher education institutions as an external examiner, and for journals and funding bodies as a reviewer of manuscripts and grants.

Like all the academics I know I work long hours, and accept that my job comes with high expectations. These include securing research income and publishing excellent research papers. For me, 10 to 12 hour working days are exceptionally usual, with far fewer (but certainly not non-existent) hours spent working at weekends. It is easy to become absorbed in what I do. I respond quickly to requests for help and feedback from students and colleagues, and if I’m chipping away at a grant application or a paper for publication can soon become engrossed in the task at hand. Oddly, whilst the hours are long it doesn’t always feel that way, and I appreciate the benefits of being able to work away from the office and to have control over my diary. All in all, I do my best across the full range of activities associated with being an academic. And, as I wrote at the outset of this post I enjoy what I do, and enjoy doing it in Cardiff.

Having committed myself to university life for over two decades I conclude that it suits me well, and find it hard to imagine doing anything else until I retire. Which brings me to today. I’m far from being the most active of Union members, and from time-to-time have had my gripes about the University and College Union (UCU). But today I downed tools to join colleagues up and down the country on strike, as a protest against threats to dismantle our pensions. At the heart of the dispute is a highly contested valuation of the USS fund, and a proposal to move from a defined benefits to a defined contribution scheme. This means a potential loss in retirement of up to £10,000 per year for USS members. Here’s a useful leaflet explaining this in a little more detail:

And for those wanting more on the technical front, there’s this blogpost which I personally found very informative.

Academics are paid modestly considering the qualifications and transferable skills they have, and as I have demonstrated here put the hours in to get the job done. Many, as I did, put up with time-limited contracts in the earlier parts of their careers. We care about our students and our research. We take additional satisfaction when our work makes a contribution to society. In my field this is through the preparation of future health care professionals, and via generating an evidence base for the improvement of practice and services. In return, having a decent pension – of the kind I and others signed up for when we first came into the university sector – does not seem like much of an ask.

I also remain acutely aware of how much more precarious the position is of younger academics. If proposed pension changes go through, people in the future will enter university employment with only defined contribution USS pension arrangements as preparation for their eventual retirements. First saddled with student debt, these are talented individuals who will be employed in their early working years on fixed-term contracts, ahead of settling into careers characterised by working weeks of 60 hours or more for salaries falling far short of a king’s ransom. A working life over, they (and not their employers) will have carried all the risk to secure pensions the value of which will reflect, quite terrifyingly, the fluctuations of the stock market. It isn’t right.