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It is not news to anyone that postgraduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are overworked and underpaid. However, we welcome the recent SCAN investigation into GTA working conditions as a timely reminder to all concerned that something must be done to change this situation.
As the SCAN investigation made clear, there are differences and disparities between departments. However, common experiences and patterns emerge, including three trends that may be summarise as follows:
- Opacity with regards to the policies and contractual terms determining pay and working conditions.
- Precarity with regards to employment.
- Marginality with regard to lack of effective organisation and representation.
Let us make no mistake then: this is not simply a problem of differences and disparities between departments. Nor is this simply a problem concerning lack of transparency or representation. Few of us wish to sit through extra meetings simply to fulfil some abstract democratic impulse. But what these trends actually amount to are the preconditions for a further general tendency: the systematic economic exploitation of teaching assistants.
The first problem a GTA will encounter is that they are not notified as to whether or not they are employed until a couple of weeks before teaching commences. Since most GTAs are students struggling to fund their PhDs on very small incomes, this unnecessary delay can cause considerable anxiety. The second problem they encounter is that contracts and pay are then delayed for a month or more. In other words, GTAs will teach for four weeks or more, not only without pay, but without actually knowing how much (or little) they will be paid.
This academic year, complaints about this delay were voiced in one department, resulting in a petition signed by all GTAs in that department demanding that this situation should not occur in future. The petitioners were told by the Head of Department ‘that’s just how it is’, and that this happens every year. Moreover, they were asked to apologise for the way they had complained – something we can only translate into being told off like naughty children for daring to ask questions.
Not only are contracts late, however: they also typically fail to include a comprehensive list of expected duties, or to make clear the relation between these duties and pay. When a GTA in one department complained about the lack of a proper list of duties, they were initially told by the Head of Department: ‘you do whatever I tell you to.’ These attitudes are pervasive, even if not usually stated so explicitly.
Much was been made of the University’s ‘Code of Practice on the Employment of Postgraduates’ in the recent SCAN article, and this was indeed a revelation for most GTAs, since they had never heard that such a thing existed. After long searching we managed to track down this document; we can only conclude from the disparity between this document and the reality of postgraduate employment, that many Heads of Department are yet to see it. Therefore, let us do them the service of quoting from it:
1.2 Where postgraduate tutors are paid on an hourly basis, hours should be based on a realistic assessment of classroom time and preparation, essay marking, office hours, and attendance at course team or other meetings.
Let us compare this to our contracts, which list the following explanation for how a GTA teaching two seminar classes is paid:
Total hours: Fixed
No. of hours: See below
Rate of Pay: £13.71
Additional Information: 46 hours @ £41.13; 17 hours @ £13,71. Total payment for period – £2,125.05
Whilst this seems reasonably clear at first glance, it quickly becomes confusing when it is realized that those ‘hours’ actually refer to ‘seminar hours’, and breakdown into three sub-‘hours’, each paid at £13.71: one for teaching, and two for preparation. Coherency then disappears altogether when we note that tutors are expected to attend two hour long lectures and hold an office hour as part of those two ‘hours’ for preparation. It seems that University managers are using a rather different definition of ‘hour’ to the rest of us. In fact, these ‘three hours’ are, in some departments, meant to cover: teaching, all preparation for the classes, essay and exam marking, invigilation of exams, monitoring student attendance and progress, attending lectures, holding office hours, attending all staff development sessions, attending course meetings, participating in ‘marking-standard exercises’, responding to student queries, responding to staff queries, using LUVLE, attending relevant film screenings, and so on.
Two things become apparent: firstly, that the contract and pay rate are purposely designed to make it impossible to determine how much GTAs are actually paid. Secondly, that there is nothing realistic about any of this.
Already the reader must be asking: ‘why do postgraduates teach if it’s this bad?’ Part of the reason, of course, is that GTAs genuinely enjoy teaching and care about the subject and the students that they teach. The sad result of this is that the more they care about their students, the more they are exploited. But, there are also two grand myths about teaching that are used to make it seem like a good option, and which need debunking here.
The first is that teaching is a way of helping to fund your PhD. Of course, amongst GTAs it is common knowledge that a postgraduate is better remunerated for bar work than for teaching. But, this myth still carries weight amongst those considering applying for a PhD. It also appears in self-congratulatory University policy (e.g. see FASS’s ‘Faculty policy on employing GTA research students’). Having discussed pay above, let us only say here that there is an utter lack of funding for PhDs and that this position of economic hardship faced by many really talented students is not only one of the preconditions for the cynical exploitation of PhDs, but should also be a cause for real shame on behalf of the University and its staff.
The second myth is that teaching is part of a PhD student’s professional development and that teaching experience is necessary for all those who want to go on to have an academic career. This rationale is belied by the fact that this poorly paid and precarious employment does not function as ‘work experience’, preparing one for ‘career advancement’. Rather, it has become a permanent fixture of the Higher Education economy; a cheap way of filling the growing disparity between teaching budgets and teaching hours. Let us be clear: GTAs are not the only ones being exploited here. A whole new strata of ‘Teaching Fellows’ has emerged: people who, having complete their PhDs, find themselves employed on poorly paid temporary and part-time contracts. Not only are these people fully qualified to be lecturers, but in many cases they are actually, de facto,working as full-time lecturers – only without the security and benefits of that role. This is the future GTAs have to look forward to: the permanence of exploitation and precarity.
Organisation and representation
GTAs are, on paper, represented by LUSU, by the Lancaster University Graduate Students Association (GSA) and the University and College Union (UCU), and have a right to attend departmental meetings and postgraduate teaching committees. However, in reality their interests are the least well represented. LUSU tends to concern itself with undergraduate concerns. The GSA is a toothless means of organising social events and trips, and is generally ignored by all. UCU only recently created a postgraduate executive position and has very few postgraduate members. Meanwhile, official rights, such as GTAs’ right to attend departmental meetings, may not be recognised in practice. In many departments postgraduates and GTAs are merely ‘represented’ at meetings by one or two student representatives – who are almost always utterly ineffectual.
This tendency towards underrepresentation is usually blamed on postgraduates themselves. Much like undergraduates who complain, postgraduates are presented as solitary, apathetic, and as failing to engage in and with the proper procedures and representative bodies. Let us make clear our position on this: this is merely an attempt to blame the exploited for their own exploitation, by those who stand by and watch this happening. This is also a further precondition for this exploitation to take place. For, without this organisational support, TAs who are angry over legitimate grievances feel too scared to act – feel too scared even to raise questions. This tactic of capitalising on the fear of the precarious and vulnerable cannot any longer be tolerated.
It is therefore necessary that we act to change this situation. We welcome moves by LUSU and UCU to investigate this situation. But, we cannot wait for these slow moving reformers to do their homework, especially since they carry it out so half-heartedly. We, who are teaching assistants, postgraduates, undergraduate students and staff – we need to start raising this as an issue, start organising together, start asking questions and making demands.
We must all come together now to demand real change!
Teaching Assistants, postgraduates and undergraduates of University in Crisis and Lancaster University Against Cuts