A UK university is giving its postgraduates who teach the same employment rights as its academics and staff in a move that will lead to improvements in pay and conditions, training and mentoring.
In what is believed to be a sector first for the UK, from next month the University of Essex will treat postgraduates who teach as “trainee academics”, meaning that they will be placed on the university’s pay scale, be paid for taking part in mandatory training, receive the same benefits as other employees, including holiday and sick pay, and have their contract duration linked to their period of PhD study.
Departments will also be expected to make sure postgraduates take part in professional development activities and there will be improvements to the induction process and networking opportunities, the university said.
Additionally, from 2017-18 scholarship and stipend offers for postgraduates will not include a requirement to teach.
A National Union of Students survey in 2013 of UK postgraduates who teach found that almost one in three earned below the minimum wage in real terms and did not receive a contract, while one in five received no training or induction before starting their role.
Anthony Forster, Essex’s vice-chancellor, said postgraduates who teach “need to be properly rewarded for sharing their expertise and inspiring our students”.
“They are working at the cutting edge of their fields and are inspirational in the way they share their excitement about their subject with students,” he said.
“At the heart of what we are doing is making sure postgraduate students who teach at Essex are highly valued, appropriately supported and fairly paid.”
The changes were proposed by a working group of current graduate teaching assistants and graduate laboratory assistants, human resources employees, the University and College Union and the university’s dean of postgraduate research and education.
The NUS praised Essex’s move.
“As Essex has found, when institutions actually talk to their teaching assistants and hear about the struggles they face, there is a realisation that failure to support postgraduate staff benefits no one,” said Sorana Vieru, vice-president (higher education) at the NUS.
“We hope that their sector-leading practice is taken up by other institutions.”