A survey of almost 1,500 postgraduates by the National Union of Students found that universities’ average pay rate for teaching is around £19.95 an hour.
However, once the time spent on preparation, marking, attending module lectures and dealing with student queries is considered, postgraduates earn an average of £10.39 an hour, with 30 per cent of them paid below the national minimum wage of £6.19.
The survey, published on 28 February, also found that hourly rates differ greatly by department and institution, with some postgraduates claiming to get only the minimum wage while others, such as those employed as part- time lecturers, say they earn up to £50 an hour.
Pay also differs by subject, with teaching in the arts and humanities receiving the lowest average “real” wage (£9.12 an hour), despite earning the highest hourly sum.
The NUS called the pay inequalities unacceptable.
“Often institutions don’t think they have a problem as they have some overarching policy, but at the department level some of the pay conditions are actually illegal,” said Rachel Wenstone, vice-president for higher education at the NUS.
A question on the students’ motivations for teaching reveals that for 5 per cent of those surveyed, it is either mandatory or necessary to receive bursaries or fee waivers.
The NUS said this was particularly worrying. “Postgraduate research students should receive funding based on their academic ability and their financial needs, not on their willingness to take on unpaid labour,” the report says.
The union said the survey shows that while some postgraduates are treated with respect by their departments, for others the level of pay, training, support and feedback they receive often falls short of that ideal.
The survey found that one third claim to have received no contract of employment, despite the fact that employers are legally required to give workers a written statement of terms and conditions within the first two months of the employee’s start date.
Around half say they had received no feedback from module lecturers and around a third had none from students, despite the overwhelming majority saying that this would be helpful to them.
One in five add that they had received no formal training, with students in science and engineering subjects less likely, on average, to be given it than their peers in the arts and humanities.
Stephanie Marshall, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, said she was surprised by the finding as, in her experience, there was a “great appetite” for training in universities, although more could be done.
“My sense is that universities are taking training seriously,” she said. “I would hope that the fifth were people who somehow dropped through the net rather than there being neglect on the part of the universities.”
Responding to the report, Universities UK said that postgraduates who teach make a vital contribution to the wider student experience.
“This report raises some [crucial] points about the importance of training for postgraduates who teach and also the need for openness and transparency in terms of pay and hours worked,” a UUK spokesman added.