PhD teaching quid pro quo without the quid (or goes)

UEL students' open letter signals wider problems with provision. Elizabeth Gibney reports

September 13, 2012

A row has broken out at a university over the amount of paid teaching work being offered to PhD students in two of its schools as concern grows in the sector about graduate teaching.

Doctoral students at the University of East London last month wrote an open letter to Patrick McGhee, UEL's vice-chancellor, complaining about the scarcity of paid teaching jobs for students in its School of Arts and Digital Industries and its School of Law and Social Sciences.

In a statement to Times Higher Education, Professor McGhee says that the former's budget for hourly paid lecturers next year would cover between 400 and 500 hours of teaching, funding specialist practitioners as well as doctoral students.

The School of Law and Social Sciences would also have a budget for such teaching, although its size has yet to be decided. The university has not stopped hiring PhD students for occasional teaching, he adds.

But Jenny Thatcher, PhD representative at the school and one of the letter writers, said that the lack of paid teaching opportunities for students was an ongoing problem at UEL that starved students of vital skills to help them further their careers. Ms Thatcher, who is writing up her thesis, added that the lack of teaching income had already forced her to move house and pawn her engagement ring.

"I enrolled on my PhD with the expectation I would get teaching work, because that's what works all over the country. But there are PhD students who can't get any teaching at all. This is a problem that's been going on for years," she said.


Robin Burrett, postgraduate research representative for the National Union of Students and a PhD student at the London School of Economics, said there were growing problems with postgraduate teaching across the UK.

He is among the founders of the Postgraduate Workers Association, established in May, which plans to work with the NUS and the University and College Union to fight the exploitation of PhD students and the spread of unpaid research positions.

"Cuts mean that post-1992 universities are tending to get rid of graduate teachers and diminish the time academic staff have available for research, ultimately diminishing the quality of those universities," Mr Burrett said. Research-based universities had the opposite problem, he added, with a growing tendency to overburden graduate teachers.

Students often teach for free or for low wages on an unspoken "quid pro quo" basis, expecting the work to boost the likelihood of employment down the line, he said.

"But that's really broken down now: employment prospects have diminished and lots of PhD students are asking themselves: 'Am I being exploited here?'"

Victoria Blake, a PhD student at Durham University who teaches at Durham and the University of Leeds, added that pay and employment practices also differ wildly within institutions, something the association was trying to address.

"In some departments it's good, but in others you might be paid for one taught hour while you actually spend three hours on preparation and an extra half an hour answering student questions," she said. "If you take that into account, you're way below the minimum wage."

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