As of this writing, it’s Friday, and every single class on my Liverpool Hope University (LHU) timetable was actually held this week AND last week, making me a very happy student.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the education structure here is different from Hope. Classes at LHU last a full year (October – May). Students enroll in a single or double degree “course” which includes lectures, seminars, and tutorials relating to their chosen degree and taught by faculty across the department. Each year builds directly on the topics in the previous year, forming a scaffolding structure. This creates a tight-knight cohort within each degree track (what they call “honours”) since all the single honours students in the same year basically take the same courses.
This scaffolded system is reinforced by the academic calendar: four teaching weeks followed by a reflective or reading week. For international and exchange students, the term is ridiculously short: a twelve week program in which only eight weeks are actually teaching weeks!
UCU Strike Action
However, enter UK politics, economic downturn, and strikes…and actual teaching time is even shorter. During my first four week teaching block, the University College Union (UCU) announced 18 days of strikes in February, March, and April. Educators, like hundreds of other union members in the UK across a variety of industry sectors, are striking because of the rising costs of living, increasing inflation, low wages, and poor working conditions.
To strike or not to strike, that it the controversy
(Excuse the cheesy Shakespeare reference…how could I resist when I’m England?)
Not all professors (tutors) are union members. Not surprisingly, this creates tension between faculty and within departments. One tutor asked us not to pass around that he was not participating in the strike. Another tutor said he personally didn’t need to strike but he wanted to participate in solidarity with his colleagues.
Tutors aren’t required to inform students when they are striking or whether or not they are participating in industrial action, but thankfully, all of my tutors offered at least an hours notice. Sometimes, the university provides substitute teaching from non-union faculty members, which can be controversial (and is often very last-minute notice). This poses an interesting question for students over whether or not to cross picket lines to attend classes that are still being held. One of my courses held during a week with industrial action only had 2 attendees!
I’ve spoken to fellow British students and in general, there is support for the strikes. Sure, some students just like the day off, but many are genuinely concerned for the issues that are being protested. Even those who choose to attend lectures for educational reasons are sympathetic toward striking faculty members. As an international student, I felt initial frustration that so many classes were scheduled to be cancelled because of strikes. Three out of eight weeks of class adds up…I am supposed to be getting credit over here after all!
Luckily, for both the teachers and students, the last two weeks of strike action were paused as ‘talks’ occurred with the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to come to a pay settlement. Despite minor inconveniences, thankfully, only one day of my lectures have actually been affected by strike action due to the university efforts to find substitutes.
Despite the ongoing negotiations, scheduled strikes will resume over the next two weeks with an additional five days of action just announced. Upcoming strikes will fortunately not impact international students since next week is our last week of classes (insert sad/shocked face).
Industrial strike action is a rather common occurrence, but this year is the biggest round of strikes in the UK since 1989. It’s not just universities that are striking but also teachers, nurses, doctors, rail workers, security guards, and bus drivers. On February 1, almost half a million workers around the country walked out on strike.
More Educational Differences
Students here are are fairly used to the disruptions of the strikes and seem unfazed by the last-minute changes and general disorganization that accompanies industrial action. Their attitude seems to reflect a generally more relaxed, laid back spirit that permeates education here.
This same mindset is visible in the personable relationship between tutors and students. Addressing tutors on a first-name basis is the norm. By second year, faculty and students joke back and forth during seminars and often have a genuine knowledge of one another’s lives.
Attendance isn’t enforced and skipping class or lectures is fairly regular among my British peers. I was laughed at outright by a British classmate when he heard that in the States, we get marks for attendance and participation (“That’s like primary school!”). This reflects the idea that students should take responsibility for their own learning. While tutors provide recommended material, there is little to no required homework, reading, or regular assignments in my humanities courses.
One might think that class discussions would be dry with no grade-based incentive for students to engage, but my experience has been that seminars and tutorials are peppered with debate and thoughtful conversation. Students are genuinely interested and want to understand the material. In theory, students are supposed to use their time outside of class on their own research and reading for their end of unit assessments, although I’ve been informed by some that this doesn’t always happen until the last minute.
Learning as a…journey?
For study abroad students, marks are based 100% off these final assessments. I appreciate that there isn’t busywork, but it puts a lot of pressure on one final paper or presentation. And that’s another difference! Here, there isn’t the same focus on grades, final marks, or GPAs that permeates American institutions. Students seem more accepting of the journey of learning rather than focused solely on the final outcome.
I’ll be honest, I’m trying to accept this mentality, but still have a ways to go. My first teaching block here felt very relaxed with plenty of time to complete the recommended readings, extra research, work ahead, and explore a new city. Between impeding strike days and no deadlines for months, I joked to friends back home that it barely felt like I was in school! I mean really…8 weeks of official teaching plus and minus strike days, it felt more like unschooling. The education came in the experience of adjusting to a new city, navigating public transit, meeting new people, and traveling.
Let me just say…that is not exactly the case now. Classes are wrapping up, assessments are ramping up, and the next two weeks look very much like my finals week at Hope with research and essay writing.
People who know me know how much I love lists, especially pros and cons lists. There are certainly pros and cons to the educational system at LHU here compared to Hope. For example, I’m a huge fan of reflective week but find some of the daily timetables confusing. Despite the challenges and unpredictability of strikes, I’m grateful to have had the immerse university experience here which has allowed me to consider the strengths (and weaknesses) of different systems. One of the reasons I chose LHU was because I wanted to have the experience of direct enrollment in another country. I’m hopeful that when I return to Hope, I’ll be able to take with me some of the lessons I’ve learned from my British peers and approach learning in a more process-oriented versus outcome centered way.
New British Word/Phrase: “Not fussed” meaning not impressed or not bothered (used by a friend from church referring to the Brookies everyone was raving about).
Kodak Moment: The little girls in matching pink coats running to smell the crocuses blooming in Sefton Park on Sunday afternoon.
Someone new I met this week: Last Saturday (2/25), Romane and I went hiking in Wales and met a friendly Welsh couple hiking in the mountains above their village who pointed out a trail that led to an old stone quarry! Can you spot their dog in this picture?
Word (phrase?) of the week: It’s going to be okay.