Remind me why I'm a 'commando' lecturer

October 3, 2003

Part-time staff are poorly paid, lack job security and have to fight for access to basic teaching resources, complains Nathan Abrams.

As a part-time lecturer, I have earned a variety of monikers. I can be anything from a "college teacher" to an "associate", "visiting", "temporary" or "sessional" lecturer. But my favourite has to be "non-established teacher". I cannot work out if this is insulting or amusing, but it betrays a great deal about what that particular institution thinks of its non-permanent staff.

Part-timing is often called "commando teaching". This metaphor has a lot to recommend it. Like commandos, universities think part-timers are ready to be deployed at a moment's notice and ever-prepared for the last-minute call-up -which we usually are. We will perform specialist surgical strikes when an institution is short-staffed. We drop in, we teach, we pull out. It is very clean, very precise and usually done unbeknownst to any other teacher. We don't meet other staff, usually because we are kept apart and, if not, who can really say that they make a real effort to meet with the part-timers anyway?

Postgraduate teaching assistants are in an even more ambiguous situation.

Other staff view them as students, while the students view them as staff.

Often they are neither. This can lead to mix-ups as to whether or not they can sit in the staff lounge or senior common room.

As a veteran of six consecutive tours of part-time duty in London and the Southeast, several rough generalisations have emerged. We are poorly paid.

Fees in London range from £25 to £40 an hour. Outside London, they can be as low as £16 an hour. Usually the fee covers contact hours only, but in reality it includes preparation, contact time, marking, examining and administration. (If you are very lucky, some institutions may work out a rate to include extra responsibilities.) This can mean one of two things. Either the part-timer spends a great deal of time preparing and marking, thus reducing the rate to a negligible sum (probably lower than the minimum wage), or they spend very little of time preparing and marking, resulting in below-average teaching.

Without a decent rate of pay, part-timers are forced to take on workloads many of their more highly paid full-time colleagues would balk at. Over the course of an academic year, I will typically teach in about four or five institutions. I have even worked for four institutions at once, covering about 15 contact hours a week. This did not include preparation, marking, office hours or travel. We have limited access to facilities and resources.

At many institutions, it is a struggle to gain access to even the most basic tools of teaching: photocopying, overhead projectors, stationery, email, computing, printing, identity and library cards. It can take months to sort things out, by which point a semester-long contract is almost over.

Getting paid is often the worst part. It's difficult enough in any one place, but each institution has its own method of payment just to make things more complicated. There have been occasions when I was not paid for more than a year because no one bothered to inform me how the process worked.

For all employers' talk of valuing contributions of all staff, regardless of their status, this is patently untrue in terms of research funding and other resources. How much cutting-edge research is never presented because high ungraduated fees and little or no grant money preclude part-timers from attending conferences? Most universities offer no funding for part-time staff to attend conferences. Some offer about £50 a year.

The Open University, to its credit, will provide up to £400 a year.

As a postgraduate on a British Academy-funded scholarship, I had greater access to conference funding both from the BA, my own institution and others, such as the Royal Historical Society, than I have had as a part-timer. Furthermore, we often have to pay full-time (waged) rates.

This has a knock-on effect. Unable to afford conferences, part-timers may not get invaluable feedback on their research. Preparation for new teaching work may preclude research in the first place. What portion of the new tuition fees will be spent on those who probably do the bulk of undergraduate teaching?

Ultimately, it is the students who lose out. Why, for example, should an hourly paid, part-timer not paid to give an office hour provide one? Contact time between lecturer and student can then be minimal. Part-timers are not going to disappear, so the unions need to acknowledge their presence and needs.

Perhaps it is time to copy what has happened in the US and form unions for part-time and postgraduate teachers in higher education.

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