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The biggest area for concern I’ve come across during the last few weeks of investigating postgraduate teaching isn’t that most students don’t know anything about the measures the University takes to safeguard them. It isn’t that many people think they’re not paid enough, or even that some feel they’re being exploited. It’s the fact that there is such a difference in teaching experiences between faculties.
I have tutored in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics for three years now. During that time I have had the opportunity to teach as and when I wanted to. I have received full support from module convenors and I have been paid a handsome hourly rate to add to the already generous bursary I receive from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. This is not an uncommon situation for science students.
In the arts, however, it’s a different story.
Without exception, every serious complaint I have seen has been from a student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. That’s not to say that everyone elsewhere is deliriously happy with their lot, or that arts students have no positive feelings about teaching. They’re not, and they do. But within the sciences there is very little feeling that as postgraduate tutors we are being exploited, that we’re there to perform the tasks senior academics don’t want and earn a pittance for doing so.
It’s not difficult to draw comparisons with the wider world. The Government is ringfencing money for science subjects and aiming budget cuts at the arts. So it’s not surprising that there’s a better sense of wellbeing and more money to go around amongst science students. But it is still unacceptable that students at the same university can undergo such varying experiences of teaching.
It would be impossible to completely standardise the postgraduate teaching experience. Different subjects require different teaching methods; the expectations my department has of me are very different from the expectations on postgraduate tutors I’ve spoken to in English Literature and other essay-based subjects. There must, however, be some way of fighting this sensation that postgraduates in the arts are the poor relations of teaching, and it should be done as soon as possible before the situation gets any more uneven.