It’s an issue that has simmered in Higher Education over the past few years, and that has recently broken the surface in more mainstream media. The treatment of the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA, which this blog post uses to refer to adjuncts on hourly paid or fixed term contracts), usually a PhD student or Early Career Researcher (ECR), is slowly being recognised as problematic (ironically, probably the humanities PhD’s favourite word). With Fern Riddell recently noting the GTA’s role as ‘vital to the running and teaching of any university course’ but also ‘the most maligned, the most ignored and the most forgotten, especially in recent debates on fair pay in higher education,’ highlighting the issues that beset the GTA and their onward effect seems pretty important. So what exactly are the possible problems with GTA work and hourly paid staff?
The short answer is that potential problems are manifold. With the funding situation for higher education - for institutions, for departments, and for graduate students - so direly diminished, especially in the humanities, many PhD students will be supplementing a partial grant or using teaching as an important source of income, rather than solely as a necessary notch in the CV belt. There’s a certain irony that there’s not yet a standardised postgraduate loan (as there is for undergraduate loans) in the UK; postgrads have to compete for grants that most (in the humanities especially) will not receive; they will then have more outgoings than many people in full time work, paying university fees while trying to support themselves on less than a full-time wage. Although hourly pay for GTA work may initially seem generous, 95% of those surveyed at Kings College London admit to working longer than their contracted hours (with around a third claiming that preparation alone took thirty hours or more over contracted hours). Working for free reduces the amount of income brought in over all, with many GTAs taking on extra contracts and jobs, creating further tension between the poverty of time required to complete the doctorate, and financial obligations.
Poor treatment of Graduate Teaching Assistants affects not just the department and the individual postgraduate or ECR, but the undergraduate as well. Paying up to £9000 a year in fees, yet receiving teaching from hourly paid staff often paid as little as £12.50 per hour, the problem of poor GTA treatment trickles down to the undergraduate experience. GTAs frequently deliver a large amount of a department’s course content. We mark essays, we provide personalised feedback for each assignment completed, we undertake groundwork (ever tried reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a 900 page whopper of a book, as just one minor task of many in your contracted preparation time?). We plan lessons, set and receive work, reply to emails. We’re often the first person the student turns to for pastoral care. We want to provide all of that, and we want to provide it at the highest standard.
Many of my colleagues across educational and cultural institutions maligned the recent UK election result, declaring despair at a future of further cuts and dismissal of the arts; and so we must be willing to champion the value of academia, culture and heritage in our own institutions. This will to change is not, however, the case everywhere. Warwick’s Teach Higher, for example, is planning to outsource the employment of the University of Warwick’s hourly paid sessional staff, with plans to extend this to other universities in the UK. GTAs must apply for their jobs again through this company, and in the process, agree to minimise their ability to seek recourse against any disputes or contractual bending that arises. As Benjamin Poore has pointed out, academic services like Teach Higher institutionalise a two-tier system, with full-time department members at the top, and hourly paid staff on casualised contracts at the bottom. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m continually struck by the generosity of my full-time colleagues; their intellectual altruism, their interest in the well-being of anyone walking the sometimes bramble-strewn path of the postgrad, and their championing of fairness and equality.
Raising this issue can prove extremely difficult for those it affects, with hourly paid staff often the most vulnerable. What does it mean for these staff to question the conditions under which they work? Fears range from ostracisation from their own department and institution, to far-reaching consequences, including finding other work to support themselves at short notice, and the worry that discussing potential concerns might mean a ‘bad reputation,’ negatively impacting future opportunities for work.
If information is power, we’d like to get a sense of the number of people this issue affects, and how it affects them (I’m calling it factivism! How intellectually suspect, darling). Is this a concern that crosses institutions, humanities disciplines, departments? If you’re a Graduate Teaching Assistant or have undertaken GTA work in the recent past, we’d love you to take two minutes to fill in this anonymous survey.
[Updated 10th June 2015]
The National Postgraduate Committee’s Guidelines for the Employment of Sessional Teachers
Fighting Against Casualisation in Education
University and College Union