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At some point in their university career most undergraduate students will be taught by postgraduate students, and most postgraduates will have experience of teaching.
Not everyone is happy with the situation, however. A frequent criticism is that pay is insufficient to cover the work required, with some student feel they are seen as no more than a source of cheap labour.
“I think it is exploitative how little we get paid for the work we do,” said one student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “The PhD students that [engage with undergraduates] have to face the consequences of having much more work without extra pay or even verbal recognition.”
Requirements of tutors differ between faculties. In the sciences and some management subjects, marking assignments often requires no more than checking the accuracy of calculations. In the arts, tutors can be expected to mark up to 15 essays per seminar group. Departments generally pay a fixed rate for marking regardless of the actual time taken, leaving students on occasion working for a low hourly rate.
“The longer we spend on preparation, responding to emails and meeting students, the less we are paid per hour,” said another arts student. “Moreover, we are paid on the assumption that it should take 20 minutes to mark an essay. I have found that 20 minutes are enough to read and evaluate an essay of 2500 words, but not to write very detailed feedback.”
In any department, it is impossible to live off teaching income.
“I feel that postgraduate students in Britain are underfunded, they’re asked to work too quickly and they’re asked to pay too much of their own money to get their education,” said Dr Robert Appelbaum, Head of the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing. “There’s something inherently stupid about the system of funding postgraduate education.”
It is unclear whether postgraduates’ role in teaching will continue once undergraduate fees rise in October 2012. Many people are worried that if students are paying £9,000 a year to study they will want to be taught by senior academics rather than postgraduates and students will lose out.
“In most cases we get really good feedback from [undergraduate] students because you’re dealing with somebody who’s at a similar age level,” said Professor Robert Geyer, Head of the Politics, Philosophy and Religion Department. “It’s such an ideal teaching ground. For a PhD student to go on the market [without] any teaching experience, they’re really going to struggle.”
Second year Linguistics and English Language student Emily Blanchard corroborated: “Postgraduate students have a lot going for them in terms of being a seminar tutor, they have more time and inclination to answer emails swiftly, they still vaguely remember undergrad years and the pressures that they were under and have a genuine, fresh passion for the subject.”
Concerns that budget cuts will force departments to assign all undergraduate teaching to academic staff so far appear unfounded. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly common for postgraduates whose study is funded by their department or faculty to teach for around two hours a week without payment as part of their funding arrangement.
“There is quite a difference in motivation from those [students] who are required to teach as part of their funding and those that elect to do so,” said a student from the Management School. “I see that those who have hours as part of their PhD stipend do tend to feel less engaged and motivated.”
Different departments have different regulations for dealing with these students, including whether they receive additional payment for their teaching.
“We still pay them, it seems ridiculously exploitative to have someone here and not pay them,” said Dr Ian Paylor, Head of the Department of Applied Social Science. “I know there’s a disagreement in the Faculty about that but as a department we pay all our postgrads for any work they do.”
Although many staff acknowledge that there could be a move towards depending on these students for teaching, so far there are no signs of it.
Steps have been taken to protect postgraduate tutors from exploitation. The University has drawn up a code of practice which is available online, along with the Graduate Teaching Assistant Framework, published in March 2010.
Developed in consultation with departments, postgraduate tutors, the Graduate Student Association and LUSU, this considers issues including recruitment, pay, duties and training. The document identifies some degree of inconsistency across the University, which are evidently long-standing as the process which produced the Framework began in January 2005.
The code of practice states that “departments should publicise their policy on the recruitment and selection of postgraduate tutors”. However, the framework identifies a “perceived lack of transparency by postgraduates over recruitment processes and rates of pay,” which was corroborated by many postgraduates. One student commented: “I find [the selection process] very non-transparent and subjective.”
Despite implementation over a year ago, there is very little awareness of the framework. For many students, the first they heard of it was through speaking to SCAN. Its value has also been queried by students and staff.
“We don’t actively promote the University’s code of practice,” said Paylor. “Most of the students, you give them the handbook and they don’t look at that, it’s asking them to look at something else that’s so far away from their frame of reference […] I don’t think it’d be any use to the students.”
Some departments – including Educational Research and the Law School – make available their own codes of practice in line with University recommendations. However, the majority of departments do not display any relevant information on their websites.
The University and Colleges Union (UCU) has also developed guidelines regarding the employment of postgraduates in conjunction with the NUS but again awareness is low. The majority of respondents to SCAN’s enquiries had little or no knowledge of what UCU could offer them, or even, in many cases, that the organisation existed at all. However, according to national officials, the UCU postgraduate campaign is due to be relaunched in the near future.