“My students never knew”: the lecturer who lived in a tent | The universities
THELike many doctoral students, Aimée Lê needed her hourly paid job – as an English teacher – to stay afloat. But what her students never guessed was that for two years, while she was teaching them, she lived in a tent.
Lê decided to live outside as a last resort when she faced a big rent increase during the third year of her doctorate at Royal Holloway, University of London, and realized that she would not be able to afford an apartment and cover all of his expenses from his research and teaching income.
She remembers: “It was cold. It was a small one person tent, which meant that after a while it was warmer. But there were days when I remember waking up and my tent was in a circle of snow. When I wasn’t doing my doctorate or some other job, I was learning to chop wood or start a fire.
She put her books away in the postgraduate office so they wouldn’t get damaged and took a shower in college. She “did not tell everything” to her parents, telling them that she was staying on an ecological farm so as not to worry them.
She also didn’t tell her university, which this week insisted that the well-being of all of its students is paramount and that she encourages anyone who struggles to seek help. Le says she led a double life, fearing it could damage her professional reputation if people knew she was homeless.
“I got good reviews from the students. I scored 300 GCSE in the lobby of a hotel. I even organized an international conference. I was working at a very high level and I was incredibly focused, ”she says.
The Union of Universities and Colleges says the plight of young academics who desperately seek to establish themselves firmly on the career ladder is worsening. Staff at 146 higher education institutions have until Thursday to vote on whether or not to strike again – potentially before Christmas – over unfair wages, “unsustainable” workloads and precarious contracts.
Le says, “I think the students expected me to receive a salary for my work. I think that’s what students everywhere assume: that we are professors with proper contracts. I told them I wasn’t, but I thought telling them I was living outside was a step too far.
Research published this month found that nearly half of the undergraduate courses the University of Cambridge is famous for are taught by insecure staff without a proper contract. UCU says it’s a familiar story across the country.
Lê received an annual scholarship of £ 16,000 for three years from Royal Holloway to do her PhD on Ethnic Minorities in American Literature, and won an additional scholarship from the United States, where she is from, during of its first year. But as an international student, she had to pay £ 8,000 a year in college fees (fees which have been waived for UK scholarship holders), leaving her £ 12,000 a year to live on, including her salary for the ‘education.
She says she was on the verge of managing until the inexpensive postgraduate room she lived in closed for refurbishment at the end of her sophomore year. She has had to find an additional £ 3,000 a year to rent, which she says she cannot afford. Determined not to give up, she borrowed the tent from a friend.
Lê admits that at the beginning “I was really scared. I found out that there was a protest camp near campus, so I arrived with my tent and asked if I could stay there so I wouldn’t be alone. And that was the start of my next two years.
While in her tent, she looked forward to the “Stability Award” after her doctorate. She knew she might end up taking on shorter-term contracts, but figured they would overlap and she would never have to worry about safe housing again.
Today, Le thinks such optimism was misplaced. She received her doctorate in 2018, and tutored 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 the University of Exeter. Now she lives with her parents and is looking for a job again.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve had a lot of interviews, including one in Cambridge recently, but started researching in April when I was still an employee. I feel really nervous.
She doesn’t know if she is right not to give up. “To be honest, I struggle with this issue. The irony is that I think I am very well suited for the job. I know I am a very good teacher. It’s like a vocation.
Royal Holloway did not know that Lê was in financial difficulty. A spokesperson said: “We have dedicated student counseling and welfare teams who are here to support our students, including doctoral candidates, in their health and well-being.” The services included free counseling, crisis assistance, and a financial wellness team that could offer information on additional funding students may be eligible for, he said.
UCU President Vicky Blake said: “Many people are still shocked to learn that higher education is one of the most precarious sectors of the UK economy. There are at least 75,000 employees on precarious contracts: workers exploited, underpaid and often pushed to the brink of collapse by management teams that are built on goodwill and a culture of fear.
Union research shows that one-third of academics are employed on fixed-term contracts, and 41% of teaching-only academics are on hourly contracts. Women and BAME staff are more likely to be precariously employed.
Jasmine Warren, who teaches psychology part-time alongside her PhD at the University of Liverpool, says: “As a woman who finishes her PhD and goes straight into precarious contracts, you have to ask yourself: when is do I choose to have a family? When can I buy a house? I haven’t seen a university lecturer post with a contract for 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’ floor while researching his doctorate and teaching history for £ 15 an hour at a Russell Group university. Jones has a disability, and in the third year of her doctorate, her funding was frozen when she had to be absent a month after the operation. Soon after, she had to leave her home because of domestic violence. She couldn’t afford a bond or rent.
“It was a very difficult time to continue teaching and doing my research when I had nowhere to live,” she says. “I ended up with severe PTSD. “
Jones eventually completed his doctorate while juggling two casual teaching jobs at two institutions within an hour of each other. “I’m still exhausted,” she said. “I’m now one of the lucky ones because I have a three-year contract, so I can finally relax a bit. But knowing that in two and a half years you will be unemployed again is absolutely terrifying.
Raj Jethwa, Managing Director of the Association of Employers of Universities and Colleges, said: “Although UCU has repeatedly rejected opportunities to work with employers in this important area, employers have continued their efforts to reduce the sector’s dependence on fixed-term contracts.
He said that over the past five years, academic fixed-term contracts have declined and “the vast majority of education is provided by staff on open-ended contracts.”
He added: “It is very disappointing that UCU is encouraging its members to take damaging union actions that are specifically designed to disrupt the teaching and learning of students who have undergone so much recent upheaval. “