English language colleges frozen in time

IEU member Tim Collins returned to his workplace after a two-year hiatus. He shares his experience.

I went to work this month, for the first time in nearly two years. That is, I went back to the office, as I’ve been working from home.

I recognised many of the early morning commuters at Gosford station. I felt like I’d won the lottery as, unlike them, my boss is happy for me to run the COVID gauntlet only once a week.

At Railway Square, things were noticeably quieter than early 2020. The formerly buzzing Colombian café on George St was closed, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to see a few tumbleweeds blowing down the tram lines.

From the outside, my office block looked the same. On the inside, it was a bit like the Mary Celeste.

Nothing had been removed from the noticeboard since March 2020. A moment frozen in time. It’s a language school, so the class timetable bore the names of many I may never see again. Somebody’s notepad lay open, with words from a long-forgotten meeting literally cut off mid-stream, the pen gathering dust alongside.

Fine colleagues lost

On another noticeboard, a timetable at the end of 2019 brandished some 97 classes. Today there are seven. Many fine colleagues, many good friends, moved on due to COVID.

Our school is part of the higher education sector, where over 17,000 jobs have been lost due to the pandemic. All those names, like seeds scattered carelessly to the wind.

Of course, there are similar COVID-driven scenarios nationally and globally. But like eating pizza in Italy, you can only go on your own experience. The visceral.

Somebody’s notepad lay open, with words from a long forgotten meeting literally cut off mid-stream, the pen gathering dust alongside.

It jolts to think that if not for the virus, those people would still be there, just part of a different timetable on thenoticeboard. And we thought the Asian financial crisis was bad.

When you’ve worked somewhere for 20 years with a lot of the same people, you get complacent. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is not to take anything for granted.

In this context, the work of the union and our union membership are more crucial than ever.

Many of the relationships at my work were aided and abetted by many union members over the years, and the resulting favourable pay and conditions. As workplaces are rebuilt, it is vital that the gains made over the years are not also thrown carelessly to the wind.

You can understand a gradual decline, but it’s different when a light is suddenly extinguished, when the same timetable is still on the wall. Perhaps it’s better this way; for the Vietnamese coffee shop owner downstairs, the gradual decline has been drawn out and desperate.

Very soon the borders will be open. The international students are trickling back, the university campuses opening. New timetables will be drawn up, with a batch of new names.

There is cause for optimism, but there will always be time for regret. Let us not also regret any decline in hard won union gains.

Adapted from an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 February 2022, by Tim Connors, IEU member, language professional and freelance writer.