Postgraduates who teach: an overlooked and undervalued group

University of Essex vice-chancellor Anthony Forster outlines his university’s plans for postgraduates who take on teaching responsibilities – a thorny issue for the UK higher education sector

September 15, 2016
Female lecturer teaching

Postgraduates who take on teaching responsibilities make an incredibly valuable contribution to the educational experience of our students and the life of universities.

They are most likely to be working at the very cutting edge of their fields, discovering new knowledge and keen to share their excitement about their subject with students. Working alongside permanent staff, teaching undergraduates, postgraduate teachers are a valued asset, playing a key role in the delivery of high-quality teaching at our universities. 

With dual roles as a student and teacher and in a context where universities are pilloried for their use of postgraduates as an unfair alternative to the use of established staff, I can understand why the issue is a difficult one for British universities. Sadly, the cumulative effect on postgraduates who teach is that they have become an overlooked and undervalued group in British higher education.

Individual postgraduate groups in universities, the National Union of Students and the University and Colleges Union have, quite rightly, urged the sector to look again at the way we treat postgraduates who teach – and, at the University of Essex, we believe we have risen to this challenge. 

While a number of universities have looked at some elements of the issue, what makes our approach different is that our aim is to offer a comprehensive response to the National Union of Students’ report, Postgraduates who Teach, and the Universities and College Union’s Postgraduate Employment Charter. Above all, we want to ensure that our postgraduate students who teach are highly valued, appropriately supported and fairly paid.

So, from October, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and graduate laboratory assistants (GLAs) will be treated as members of staff who are trainee academics and we will provide all the help, support and facilities to support them in this role. This will cover: 

  • Improved recruitment processes with jobs advertised on a university-wide basis
  • GTA/GLA jobs will be placed on a university pay scale, benefit from the cost of living increase agreed nationally each year, and have their contract duration linked to the period of PhD study
  • The hours of each job will be calculated in the same way that all employees’ hours are calculated (judging the time it takes to complete each task and assigning to it a number of hours)
  • To ensure our GTA/GLAs are well qualified, we will provide mandatory training for their teaching, learning and assessment responsibilities, and the appropriate pay for this
  • When postgraduates teach they will be employees and have the same rights and responsibilities as other employees
  • And from the academic year 2017-18, scholarship and stipend offers will not include a requirement to teach.

We don’t know of any other university that has approached the issue of postgraduate teachers in such a comprehensive way and taken the steps to treat GTAs and GLAs as members of staff when teaching. It requires universities to develop principles to guide the use of postgraduates who teach, an assessment to ensure that pay is objective and fair, the development of a clear assessment of training needs – and perhaps, above all, acceptance that when postgraduate students teach, they are members of staff, with all the rights and obligations that comes with this. 

Postgraduates who teach are the future of our profession and we want to provide the right framework at the start of their careers to help them succeed. We hope that we have risen to this challenge.

Anthony Forster is vice-chancellor of the University of Essex

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