You have to teach to have the smallest chance of an academic life after your doctorate, but if you teach you risk increasing financial hardship and being unable to continue in your research
Walk into any undergraduate seminar room in the country and you will see the future of academia discussing ideas and debating research. I am not referring to the newly arrived undergraduates, or to the salaried course leaders, but rather to a class of university staff that is rarely mentioned – the graduate teaching assistant.
When I was an undergraduate, seminar tutors, or GTAs, were responsible for the majority of student contact and teaching time. They marked essays, delivered feedback and prepared you for exams, supporting the courses outlined and delivered by their department’s academics. Commonly drawn from an institution’s PhD students, they were – and continue to be – responsible for making the student experience the best that it can be. Yet while their role is vital to the running and teaching of any university course, it is also the most maligned, the most ignored and the most forgotten, especially in recent debates on fair pay in higher education.
The strike action on 6 and 10 February saw academics walk out in protest over salaries falling by up to 15 per cent in real terms over the past four years. However, little mention has been made of the dire financial circumstances faced by GTAs while they try to gain the teaching experience required for a further career in academia.
As Thursday’s strike began, some took to Twitter to set that right. The hashtag #fairpayinHE revealed shocking stories of the exploitation faced by GTAs – from hourly pay as low as £12.50, to a PhD student receiving just £31 for giving a university lecture. Others explained how they had been forced to take on multiple contracts and part‑time work in bars or shops just to earn enough money to live on.
Universities enforce the message that PhD students should be grateful for the opportunity to teach seminars; it is a step every academic has had to go through at some point in their career in order to do the job they love.
But as departments face increasingly harsh financial circumstances, GTAs bear the brunt of tightening purse strings and increasing workloads.
No longer just expected to run seminars, GTAs now also lecture and design exam and essay questions, and they are often the first point of pastoral care for their students. This often means that the majority of an undergraduate’s taught experience will come from someone on an hourly contract, whose yearly pay will equal less than a single month’s worth of housing and utility bills.
In this environment, universities benefit from what is, in effect, a form of glorified intern; meanwhile GTAs fear that asking for fair pay will risk them losing their jobs or missing out on the chance to give a lecture and act as a quasi-academic.
As the cost of living far outstrips the funding available to PhD candidates, especially in the humanities, many postgraduates face a difficult choice between taking on low-paid, time-consuming teaching and earning money outside their university just to be able to continue in their research.
Teaching experience is valuable, but at what cost? When doctoral students are working so hard for such little financial return, the consequences are clear: thesis completion takes longer, stress levels increase dramatically and debts are accumulated. This seems to be one of the most ridiculous catch-22s academia currently faces: you have to teach to have the smallest chance of an academic life after your doctorate, but if you teach you risk increasing financial hardship and being unable to continue in your research.
Much is made of undergraduate opportunities and of the life of salaried lecturers, but for those at the very beginning of their academic career there is far less support and recognition.
Why is it that universities seem unable to really invest in their postgraduates? It is time that they woke up to those at the very heart of their communities and provided pay that reflects the challenges and responsibilities they expect them to undertake.