Will full-timers please spare a thought for us?

January 4, 2008

Full-time staff too often take unfair advantage of their part-time colleagues, says an hourly paid lecturer.

Lecturers in higher education have seen their pay rise to more than £42,000, according to the latest government figures. Statistics compiled by the Office of National Statistics show that full-time academics earned an average of £42,620 in the year to April 2007.

That's great. I'm genuinely pleased for them. But well-paid permanently employed full-time colleagues should spare a thought for us hourly paid lecturers, associate tutors, visiting staff - whatever you want to call us. We're the ones who pick up the slack when there's a course the full- timers don't fancy teaching or when someone goes off on research leave at the last minute.

The 11th-hour requests to teach a course are tolerable. We want to teach; we want to work with students; and we don't wish to ruin our chances of being offered a full-time or fractional post in the future - so we'll bend over backwards to write a syllabus, plan seminars and set essay questions.

The scandalous advantage-taking by full-time staff is a little harder to swallow. It's hardly surprising that the full-timers want to teach the glamorous, challenging, popular optional courses with small class numbers and engage us to do the donkey work on the compulsory modules. But more than once I've been asked to lead one seminar class while a full-timer takes on the role of "course leader".

On one module, the course leader was timetabled to take all the lectures, but failed to turn up on two occasions on a ten-week course, leaving me with a hall full of students and nothing to teach them save the group activities I'd planned for my seminar class - which didn't work without the lecture introducing them to the topic. On another, the course leader roped in a series of guest speakers, left me to devise my own seminar programme and finally deigned to turn up to the last session of term.

Associate tutors are paid by the hour, and we're paid only for the hours we teach. We don't get preparation time. We're told that our hourly rate is supposed to take into account the preparation we need to do, but in reality it doesn't cover it. A colleague has been asked to give a lecture on a subject entirely out of her specialism and has spent most of the past week researching it - and that's even before she gets to writing the lecture and producing visuals and planning a seminar. How is she supposed to pay her rent?

Another colleague has been told that he'll be paid in a lump sum for his work leading seminars at the end of the semester, but the faculty are as yet unsure as to how much that amount will be - not a great help for his budgeting.

In the end, everyone loses out. The university has a team of disgruntled hourly paid staff who don't feel as if they are part of the department or as if their work is valued. At best, we might get invited to the faculty staff meetings every term, if not the end-of-semester parties; at worst, we aren't issued with a staff swipe card to access the building or the library or the audiovisual resources.

We don't get the chance to improve our practice because we don't get the same professional development opportunities as the full-timers - and coincidentally this also means we don't get the chance to move up the pay scale.

And the students miss out, too. I was once asked to cover a full-timer's time off by leading a 14-week module. Come reassessment time, the full- timer hadn't returned to work and hadn't been in contact with those students who needed to retake the module. Although it was not my responsibility, the students I had been teaching that semester got in touch with me and asked me to provide tutorials and general guidance. What could I do? I couldn't in all conscience leave them to fend for themselves, so I agreed to hold tutorials in my own time.

An older, more experienced colleague advised me: "This is not your problem. You are not being paid to care now. If the university wants you to care, it should draw up a contract and pay you to care. As it is, this is not your job."

My colleague was right - but this is the sly gamble universities take.

Hourly paid staff are just as conscientious as full-timers - sometimes even more so. If hourly paid staff do extra work out of sheer professional pride, then that's free labour for the university and a time-consuming job crossed off the faculty's to-do list.

So well done to the unions that have bargained so hard for the pay increases for full-time academic staff. Perhaps now you could turn your attention to the pay rates and working conditions of the rest of us?

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has worked as an hourly paid lecturer in four universities.

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