Is it time to rethink GTA positions?

May 1, 2014

Graduate teaching assistantships should be scrapped, not only because of the wide discrepancies in pay and working conditions (“Labour of love: huge variation in GTA pay”, News, 24 April) but also because their introduction has created a divisive, two-tier system of support for postgraduate research.

A research student funded by, for example, a research council scholarship receives a (tax-free) stipend of about £13,900 per annum and can opt to do some undergraduate teaching for extra pay; GTAs on the other hand are usually required to shoulder substantial teaching loads without remuneration.

This system is unfair on GTAs, who usually have less time for research than other PhD students, and on undergraduate students, nowadays paying enormously high fees, whose teaching is fobbed off on to GTAs rather than being done by more senior, ie, more expensive, staff. Scrapping GTAs will result in fewer PhD students, especially in departments that struggle to attract external research funding, but is that such a bad thing?

In a steady state, each potential PhD supervisor in the university system will, on average over their entire career, produce just one PhD student who will get a job in academia. The vast majority of PhDs therefore have no chance of ever getting a faculty position. Some know this, of course, and happily take their skills elsewhere when they have completed a thesis. But many bright students are lured into GTA positions by the prospect that an illustrious career as an academic awaits them, when really they are just being hired as cheap teaching labour. The result is a growing pool of disaffected people with PhDs who feel, with some justification, that they’ve been duped.

Peter Coles
School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences
University of Sussex

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