Traveller’s joy (And UCU strikes, birthdays and Labour’s election manifesto)

Journeys have been a lot on my mind in the past few weeks. I recently returned from a month’s PhD fieldwork out of the UK, and not long after my return I turned 40, a landmark along the ‘journey of life’ which surely makes most of us who get there just a little reflective.

In an attempt to clear my head from the previous evenings’ birthday celebrations I went for a walk the next day and enjoyed seeing these wispy balls of fluff adorning the hedgerows, made all the more obvious by late autumn which has now mostly left branches in a state of undress.


On my way home I texted a friend (who knows these kind of things) to ask what this plant was and she sent me this link. Old man’s beard, of course, it was a name I knew, but obviously had forgotten what it actually looked like. I then saw that the same plant is also known as traveller’s joy. How lovely. The name lodged itself in my thinking for some reason.

The day after this I this I had an appointment with a career’s advisor at my university.

Having spent 10 plus years teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL) in both charities and Further Education institutions, I had become fed up of the insecurity of trying to work in a sector that was in a 10 year downward spiral of funding cuts, and decided to go back to do a Masters and a PhD as a ‘mature’ student. The careers advisor said I was therefore heading towards the section of my life that her A4-paper scribbled chart labelled as my ‘second career’. Beyond second there was also a section for a third. I am not sure why three is the magic number or what happens if you try and fit a fourth in.

I had wanted to do a PhD mostly because I thought a career in Higher Education sounded like not a bad idea. I could teach, and if I could also prove I could do an OK piece of research maybe I would make the move from F to H. Further to Higher Education; yet it seems it is literally beyond our reach to be able to manage these sectors well in this country. I had quit working in FE at the end of a five week strike with University and Colleges Union (UCU) at my college disputing proposed contract changes – a reduction by 10 days of summer holiday with no change in pay in the midst of years of the public sector pay freeze. I didn’t leave because of the strike, I was proud to be a part of it, but the end of it coincided with our department being offered yet another round of redundancies, this time voluntary. I took it.

This week, at 60 universities across the UK, academic staff are again out on an 8 day UCU strike protesting pay cuts, worsening working conditions and pensions.

According to the UCU “46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero hours contracts to deliver teaching”. I began my career teaching in FE trying to work my way off zero hours contracts and onto a permanent one. I don’t like the idea of being offered another one. Who does?

So, I was at a career’s appointment at my university just to consider what options there were outside getting a job as an academic after my PhD. Never before have I felt quite so much like a bag of sugar that needed remarketing to get it back out on the shelf, just in order to track down a job in that elusive second career.

I was told to “get yourself an online profile and work out your identity”. Was I a results-driven person, I was asked? I fumbled over answer and said I wasn’t sure that’s how I would describe myself in everyday speak. I had forgotten for a moment, of course, I had landed slap bang in the centre of planet neoliberal, just by walking through the door of this office. In producing a CV, my selling points had to be listed as measurable, quantifiable achievements, just stating personal qualities do not cut it in today’s job market, I was told.

This kind of thing I had half expected, but what surprised me most now I think about this conversation was the amount of calm certainty that was expressed when I was told no, of course most of the jobs I would be applying for later on would not really need a PhD at all, PhDs are as common place as Masters these days. –  Is this the only careers advice being offered to PhD candidates from within the very institutions which are so happy to take students’ fees for these courses? In the logic of this system we are told that we enter the job market with is ourselves as ‘product’, and that the label better be good. Our selling points which give us value added (aka the PhD) for which we have been sacrificing time, money and probably a good deal of our mental health to acquire is not even expected to be required per se. It can be repackaged, and then be seen as useful, but it won’t directly be required, necessarily.

Luckily, I also had other interests in doing a PhD other than just getting a job out of it, and so far, I am actually mostly enjoying it, but that is not the point.

So I acknowledge and commend the struggle current UCU strikers are engaging in, those who are fighting for a better work-life within Higher Education, and in the upcoming election say please vote for a political party which does better by our education system than what the current one is doing. Labour’s manifesto acknowledges that under the previous government “adult education has undergone 10 years of managed decline.” And so, among other things they promise to “restore funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses and restore and expand the Union Learning Fund, giving workers the right to accrue paid time off for education and training” .

For HE, Labour says they will “end the failed free-market experiment in higher education, abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants.” In addition, they will end the casualisation of staff.

I for one would love to see all these things happen.


And so I return to traveller’s joy. I don’t have so much else to say about it, other than I love the fact that someone in the past decided to give a name to a thing which brought delight to those who travelled down muddy paths and alongside prickly hedgerows. Naming it as a joy for travellers means also alluding to, but not over-stating, the fact that sometimes travellers need small moments of grace which help to alleviate the difficulty or the challenge of the path being taken. So – Solidarity to UCU strikers this week, and solidarity also to any other PhD- ers at whatever stage you are along the journey. What is it that can be named as traveller’s joy on the various tracks, paths and roads we take?



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