Graduate teaching assistants have been left behind by all

Striking academics call for better pay, but the PhD students who support their work are suffering even more, Fern Riddell says

February 13, 2014

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.

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Reader's comments (5)

£13.50 an hour?! To me and some of my colleagues at a University of London college in Bloomsbury, that sounds a lot compared to the £6 or £7 per hour we end up with on average. It's shocking, but you enter into it without appreciating the time commitment because the contracts suggest you will be doing far fewer hours! It actually needs urgent attention as when you are getting paid less than the living wage there is something seriously wrong.
The history department at KCL (where you are a PhD student, but don't seem to be a GTA) increased its pay package for GTAs by 20% this past year. They also provided GTAs with a budget for buying textbooks for use on the course, and improved the space available for meeting with students. Those changes came about because the head of our department was passionate about improving the working conditions of GTAs and was willing to listen to our ideas.
There are many aspects of this article which I feel miss the represent the situation. Agreed the treatment of GTAs can be terrible, the over-reliance on GTAs for teaching/marking/pastoral care is seemingly rife (although certainly variable depending on department/discipline), the expectations placed on GTAs are also often unrealistic when combined with the drive for completion in 3 years. However, it must be said that the HE strike was not really about academic staff, it was to support the lower paid members of HE staff - this includes GTAs - but primarily relates to the 57% of support services colleagues who earn below the national average wage. Also questionable is the suggestion that all GTAs are using their GTA earnings to fully fund their living costs. Failing to recognise that many/most have a primary funding source which they top up with GTA work. Obvioulsy many may be relying on GTA work more than others depending on their life situation, and in my case depending on how long their funding lasts compared to how long it actually takes to complete a PhD. However, as I say I feel the article misrepresents the HE strike and doesn't represent the nuance of GTA earnings.
So so true. I was a GTA for 3 years. I basically had a year when I did almost no work on my PhD because I was teaching full-time for a paltry sum I couldn't live on. I almost killed myself trying to do fieldwork and teach in years 2 and 3, and then had to fund myself through a 4th year to write the damn thing. I often wondered what the students would think if they knew their essays and exams were being given 10-15 mins consideration max so I could come in at something like minimum wage. The marking load was so huge it was crippling (150 essays in 14 days, no days off). I was also very good at it, and loved it, and I wouldn't have minded any of it if I had been considered as a member of staff, or valued, or given some kind of route into employment afterwards, but I wasn't. Probably would have been better off just sucking up to a more senior academic, as that's how the breaks come. God, it feels good to get that moan off my chest, and I'm out of it now, but I wish something could be done about it. Value your GTAs, they are amazing!
Sam - I've been hearing multiple reports of this, but no-one is willing to name the Uni. Adam - yes, KCL have made huge improvements in the last year which are fantastic, and you are right, I am not a GTA, I had to make the choice between teaching and being able to support myself during my research. But this article was written with the input of KCL GTA's from all over the humanities school, as well as GTA's and other academic staff from across the country. Surely you can see that such huge differences in pay against the increase in workload is something that needs to be drawn attention to? I'm not talking about one department, in one university, but all departments, and all GTA's. Sam - it's a shame you feel that way. M - sadly, this is an experience that I kept hearing when writing this piece, thanks for your comment!

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