‘My students never knew’: the lecturer who lived in a tent | Universities

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L.Like many PhD students, Aimée Lê needed her hourly wages – as an English lecturer – to stay afloat. What her students could never have guessed, however, was that while teaching them, she lived in a tent for two years.

Lê decided to live outdoors as a last resort when faced with a sharp rent increase in her third year of PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, realizing that she couldn’t afford an apartment and could cover all of her research – and teaching income.

She recalls: “It was cold. It was a small one-person tent, which meant it got warmer after a while. But there were days when I remember waking up and my tent lying in a circle of snow. When I wasn’t doing my PhD or other work, I learned how to chop wood or make a fire. “

She kept her books in the postgraduate office so that they would not be damaged, and she took a shower at the university. She “hides” from her parents that she lives on an organic farm so as not to worry them.

Neither did she tell her university, which this week insisted that the welfare of all of its students be paramount and that she encouraged anyone who sought assistance. Lê says she led a double life fearing it could damage her professional reputation if people knew she was homeless.

“I’ve got good reviews from students. I marked 300 GCSEs in a hotel lobby. I even organized an international conference. I worked at a very high level and was incredibly focused, ”she says.

The plight of young academics desperate for a place on the corporate ladder is getting worse, according to the University and College Union. The employees of 146 universities have until Thursday to vote on a new strike – possibly before Christmas – due to unfair pay, “unsustainable” workload and temporary contracts.

Lê says: “I think the students had every expectation that I would get a salary for my work. I think that’s what students everywhere assume: that we are lecturers with proper contracts. I told them it wasn’t, but I thought it would be a step too far to tell them I live outside. “

Research released this month found that nearly half of the undergraduate tutorials Cambridge University is famous for are given by precarious workers without proper contracts. The UCU says this is a story known nationwide.

Lê received an annual grant of £ 16,000 for three years from Royal Holloway to write her PhD on ethnic minority groups in American literature and won an additional grant from the United States, where she is from, during the first year. But as an international student, she had to pay the university £ 8,000 a year (fees waived for UK scholarship holders) so she had £ 12,000 a year to live on, including her teaching salary.

She says she only looked after the administration until the cheap college dorm she lived in closed for renovations at the end of her sophomore year. She was faced with finding an extra £ 3,000 a year on rent which she thought she could not afford. Determined not to break off, she borrowed the tent from a friend.

Lê admits that “I was really scared at first. I found out that there is a protest camp near campus so I showed up with my tent and asked if I could stay there so I wouldn’t be alone. And that was the beginning of my next two years. “

In her tent she was looking forward to the “Stability Reward” after completing her doctorate. She knew that she might still be taking on some shorter contracts, but she thought they would overlap and that she would never have to worry about safe accommodation again.

Today, Lê believes that such optimism was out of place. Graduated from her PhD in 2018, she taught school children and worked in a botanical garden to make ends meet before securing a two-year fixed-term contract to teach creative writing at Exeter University. Now she lives with her parents again and is looking for a job again.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve had many interviews, including one recently at Cambridge, but I started looking in April when I was still employed. I’m really nervous. “

She doesn’t know if it’s right not to give up. “To be honest, I struggle with this question. The irony is that I think I am very well suited for the job. I know that I am a really good teacher. It’s like a calling. “

Little did Royal Holloway know that Lê was in financial trouble. A spokesperson said, “We have dedicated student counseling and wellbeing teams that are here to support our students, including PhD students, with their health and wellbeing.” Services included free counseling, crisis relief and a financial wellbeing team , which could provide information on additional funding that students may be eligible for, he said.

Vicky Blake, President of UCU, said: “Many people are still shocked to learn that higher education is one of the most socialized sectors of the UK economy. There are at least 75,000 employees on insecure contracts: workers who are exploited, underpaid, and often marginalized by leadership teams that rely on goodwill and a culture of fear. “

the Union research shows that a third of academics have fixed-term contracts and 41% of teachers have hourly wage contracts. Women and BAME employees are more often employed in an unsafe manner.

Jasmine Warren, who teaches psychology part-time alongside her PhD at the University of Liverpool, says, “As a woman finishing her PhD and entering precarious contracts, one has to ask: When do I choose to have a family? When can I buy a house? I haven’t seen any college ad teaching positions with contracts of more than a year recently. We are expected to accept this as normal. “

Sian Jones (not her real name) spent six months sleeping on friends’ floors while doing PhD research and teaching history for £ 15 an hour at a Russell Group university. Jones has a disability, and in the third year of her PhD, her funding was frozen when she had to sit out a month after surgery. She was forced to leave home soon after due to domestic violence. She couldn’t afford bail or rent.

“It was a really tough time keeping teaching and researching while I didn’t have an apartment,” she says. “I ended up with severe PTSD.”

Jones eventually finished her PhD while juggling two casual teaching jobs at two institutions an hour apart. “I’m still exhausted,” she says. “I am one of the lucky ones now, because I have a three-year contract and can finally relax a bit. But to know that you will be unemployed again in two and a half years is absolutely terrifying. “

Raj Jethwa, General Manager of the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association, said: “Although UCU has repeatedly rejected opportunities to collaborate with employers in this important area, employers have continued their efforts to reduce the sector’s reliance on fixed-term contracts.”

He said that fixed-term academic contracts had declined over the past five years and “the vast majority of teaching is done by staff on open-ended contracts.”

He added, “It is very disappointing that the UCU is encouraging its members to take harmful industrial action specifically designed to disrupt teaching and learning for students who have been through so much upheaval recently.”


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