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November 25th, 2018:

The Story of Returning to the Tea Estate

Guest blog by Mahesan Niranjan

This time last year, I wrote an open letter to the Chair of our University Council (archived on the UCU blog here). I raised several points about scholarship and the need for better governance structures to support it. Nearly a hundred colleagues from across campus thanked me and agreed with my views. But, apart from a single exception, all of them ranked below the level of Head of Department. From the upper echelons, the reaction was simply one of politely raised eyebrows at my audacity in exercising my right to write.

More disappointing was my inability to trigger any open discussion within the community. Nobody expressed a view – in agreement or not – in public. I wondered why. Perhaps I was just wrong. Wrong about high salaries at the top end of our hierarchy. Wrong about annual appraisals and their demoralising effect. Wrong about the need for greater participation by the community in decision making. Wrong that scholarship is our revenue generator, hence academics should not be seen simply as costs. Wrong about the tuition fees we charge subsidising contract research. Perhaps those who agreed with me were a minority.

Or maybe we have accepted that we are mere human resources required to turn up at work and follow commands without question.

Hence this year, my reflections are inward. About myself. About my career of three decades. After all, I will be sixty soon. Grateful for what I have so far had. I can relax, have fun and reflect. Yes, reflect, for ‘tis the season of reflection.

I grew up in a tea estate in the central hills of Sri Lanka, a region of exceptional beauty. Hill after hill with rows of fresh green tea bushes. A tea estate has a special kind of beauty. Neatly pruned bushes grown to waist levels of the workers who pluck them. The workers, in bright coloured sarees with cane baskets hanging over their shoulders pluck tea with impressive skill: two leaves and a bud snipped with precision, and a palm-full of them periodically tossed over the shoulders into the basket. They continually chew mouthful of betel leaves to be spat on the deadly blood-sucking leeches that get between their bare toes.

Management of the estate is neat, efficient and hierarchical. There is the top level guy, usually the owner, referred to as the planter. Between him and the workforce is a layer of supervisors, known as kanganis. The planter sets the high level objectives for the estate. He (always it is ‘he’) defines how the workforce is partitioned into teams and which kangani supervises which team. Periodically, he shuffles the groups of workers among the hills. In days gone by, the planter was an European colonialist. The global thinker with vision and skill to spot where tea will grow and where it will be consumed, and what human resources would be needed to pluck the leaves and how precisely they shall be managed to maximise throughput. Since independence, the State and local entrepreneurs have taken over the estates, but retained the management techniques.

The kangani knows his place between the planter and the workforce. He is ambitious, dreaming of becoming a planter himself one day, though the probability of achieving that is infinitesimally small. In pursuit of that ambition, the kangani nods in the direction above to anything the planter cares to utter,  and barks orders downwards at the workforce. The objectives set by the planter are passed down as targets the workers should achieve: Pluck X kg a day, and you get N Rupees. Incentives also exist: Pluck 10% more the set target on any day, you get a reward of 1% increase in pay. If you overshoot, the target is raised by 10% the next day. Once in a while, when the kangani’s back is turned, the workforce have fun. They mimic his nods: “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir,” they tease and giggle.

During my childhood, I hated the tea estate. I hated the fact that the beauty of the estate hides intolerable inequality, poverty, hierarchy and exploitation. I wanted to leave the place as soon as possible and pursue scholarship and the discovery of knowledge, driven by curiosity. I did precisely that, leaving the tea estate and hiding myself in the bubbles of the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Southampton. Three wonderful decades.

Somewhere mid-career an interesting thing happened. I was asked to take on a university management role. My father was amused. “How could you do a management job?” he wrote. “You are an absent minded scholar. You hate wearing a neck-tie. You read the Guardian. You buy the Big Issue. You go to work in socks and sandals. Son, you do not even have a strong enough brake between thought and speech.” Despite such scepticism, I took the role.

Towards the end of my tenure in the said management job, my father asked how it went. “Alright,” I reported, immediately inventing a performance measure to justify the claim. “Yes, a small number of people didn’t like the way I did the job, but they all ranked above me in the hierarchy, and those who ranked below all seemed appreciative.” The dislikes and likes being above and below, respectively, shows I did alright, I explained.

“How did you achieve that?” he asked. “I owe it,” I said with  sincerity, “to the transferable skills you taught me, from the way the tea estate was organised: the separation of the skill of the workforce from the profit-making objectives of the planter, by the ambitious intermediary, the kangani.” “All I had to do was to recognise the importance of the workforce, and not mimic the kangani. I simply refused to nod in agreement upwards and avoided barking orders downwards.” My father was amused by the term I had just used. “What did you say, transferable… what?” he asked. He was a teacher of English and a scholar of Sanskrit. He was a good linguist, too. Our mother tongue, Tamil, comes from the Dravidian family of languages, distinct form the Indo-European family which include English and Sanskrit. He has studied the flow of words, morphological changes and grammatical structures between Sanskrit and Tamil. His particular interest was in Hinduism, a religion in which communication between man and stone is executed in Sanskrit. Despite that background, my father has never come across the phrase “transferable skill”. As a teacher, he has always insisted that the primary purpose of education is joy, the pleasure achieved by discovering knowledge. He would accept the ability to solve previously unseen problems as a secondary benefit.

I have plagiarised his practice. I try to instil the idea that there is fun in machine learning, which is the subject I teach, and insist that my success is measured by my students being able to solve problems they have not seen before. The pleasure I achieved last week, for example, when a student of eight years ago wrote to thank me when he got appointed to a lectureship, far outweighs the irritation I tolerate when the moderated appraisal score is returned informing me of my mediocre performance in the previous year. It is apparently axiomatic in present day universities that there is a sharply peaked “bell-curve” of performance into which our scholarship could be packed.

I regard quality assurance processes as necessary, but not sufficient proxies for achieving high quality. There is an anecdote I heard about someone who wrote in an Annual Module Reflection Form (AMRF): “As a result of innovative teaching this year, half the candidates achieved a grade higher than the median mark.” That AMRF has been approved by several committees and filed somewhere, as testimony to the quality of the quality assurance processes that dominate our lives.

It wasn’t my father’s ignorance of the phrase “transferable skill” that bothered me. My casual use of the phrase shamed me. Whatever next, I wondered. Have I been house-trained into the system? Will I now speak of “strategic priority”? Or will I have a “vision”? Or will I start believing in “learning outcomes”? Or will I be “moving forward”?

A month after that conversation with my father, I was nearing the end of my tenure in that management role. I was called into the office of a senior manager. “You seem to have done alright… we would like you to continue for another term.” He had consulted the foot soldiers. “They all seem to like your work,” he reported his discovery, quickly adding “me too.”  I declined the offer. “I do not wish to continue. I need to get back to the research lab, the classroom, the journal club and the coffee room of the foot soldiers.”

So, I went back to the tea estate! Spotting two leaves and a bud at a glance with amazing skill; manipulating my fingers to pluck them with speed; rhythmically shoving handful of them into the basket that hung on my back. I am promised incentives if I perform above target: 10% plucked above target gets 1% increase in pay. But the kangani moves my target whenever I overshoot it.

Yet, occasionally, when the kangani’s back is turned, I do have fun, thinking of the tea estate workers and their “yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full, Sir!”, for ‘tis indeed the season of reflection.

Gender matters

The University’s 2017 statutory Gender Pay Gap return revealed mean and median pay gaps of +20.2% and +17.4 % respectively. This gap between men’s and women’s pay is wider than that found across the UK economy as a whole or the wider HE sector. Women account for 42 % of our academic workforce, yet they continue to be over-represented in more junior roles, and the recent Equal Pay Review and Gender Pay Gap return suggest the persistence of a ‘glass ceiling’ or promotion bar for women at the University. The senior management have suggested that women have done so well in past promotion rounds that the University has “exhausted female talent pools for promotion” (Equal Pay Review 2017 p.13) and this is why so few women are moving into the upper pay grades. UCU contests this. We think that presenteeism and a long hours culture at the University creates the perception that senior roles require 24/7 working, which may be more possible for many male staff. This deters women from applying for promotion. We are also aware that women continue to be over-represented in educational, administrative, and pastoral support roles that, while essential to the running of the University, are often regarded by senior managers as less valuable than other roles dominated by men. This means that women do not get considered for promotion. Moreover, the clustering of women in part-time roles and on casualised, fixed term contracts exacerbates gender inequalities.

UCU has been pushing the senior management to take action to address gender, (and disability and ethnicity) inequalities at this University. There is now a wealth of evidence that gender biases are highly problematic in the world of education and that women are held back by unconscious biases. We have suggested that more ‘hidden bias’ training is required for all staff who sit on promotions panels or manage staff. We have also continually pointed out that Module Evaluation Questionnaires and other student evaluations are subject to gendered biases and should not be used in promotion or disciplinary proceedings – yet we know that they continue to be used in these ways. At our most recent Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) we asked that senior managers cease using student evaluations in standard university CVs and appraisal – we await a response. We have also asked the senior managers to cease bell curve moderation of appraisals as this is known to be susceptible to gender=based discrimination and we believe this entrenches the gender pay gap.

One pernicious barrier to the advancement of women at this University is the lack of very senior role models and the continued over-representation of white men at the apex of the organisation. Four top senior management roles – President, Vice-President Research, Vice-President Education and COO – are all white men. We have recently added a female Vice-President International, and another for Internal Partnerships, but many believe that the real power rests with the roles currently occupied by men. If we look outside this University, it is depressing to see that only 26% of university vice-chancellors and principals are female. There are even greater challenges for our Black and ethnic colleagues. Last year the  Guardian reported that our Universities “employ more black staff as cleaners, receptionists or porters than as lecturers or professors”.  Professor Kalwant Bhopal, author of White Privilege: The Myth of Post-racial Society has continually pointed out how Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities – are marginalised – especially in Higher Education. She says “I think that universities – particularly elite universities – are not really interested in this issue because they want to perpetuate their own image of white privilege and whiteness.”

In recent years, our members have alerted the senior management to a number of public facing and outreach events, such as distinguished lectures, expert panels and presentations that have failed to include a single woman. Whilst we were happy that a recent issue of the in-house re:action magazine focussed on women, we believe that much greater efforts to represent diversity are needed. One particular University space where the representation of women needs to be addressed is our Senate room. In a University that seeks to be diverse many of us question the dominance of men in the artworks there. Alongside the Rothenstein mural which has been the subject of recent controversy, this room displays portraits of our previous Vice Chancellors. The sole woman represented is Dame Helen Alexander the former Chancellor. The continued resistance of senior management to suggestions that this room and other spaces in our University should contain images that better reflect our diverse community is indicative of the progress that should be made. These are just symbols, but symbols matter. Southampton UCU will continue to press for meaningful action to close the gender pay gap.

 

*the last two sentences of this blog were edited on 27/11/18 because, you know, we are a collective, a union, and we think and talk about stuff to make it better.