Precarity is even worse for teachers on open learning programmes

Asking people to prepare for a 10-week course that might not run is too much, says an anonymous early career academic

July 20, 2019

The increasingly precarious nature of working in academia is now well known. However, those who teach on universities’ open learning courses or adult education classes are rarely mentioned.

I first became aware that there were opportunities to teach on a local university’s open learning programme when a friend and recent PhD graduate successfully applied to devise and teach a 10-week course. It was to be pitched at a level equivalent to the first year of an undergraduate degree, but all that was necessary was a degree in the relevant subject and a track record of teaching adults.

Since I wanted to gain further lecturing experience, I decided to apply, too. Even if I decided ultimately to work outside academia, I knew that the experience of working with the public would be useful for my CV. 

The application process was fairly extensive, requiring me, among other things, to submit an original idea for a course (in my case, history) and to provide an outline of learning aims and objectives. It paid off when, a few months later, I received an email stating that my course idea had been approved by an academic panel. However, my delight soon turned to disappointment when I received the contract a few weeks later.

Although I would be required to do all of the necessary preparation in advance, I was informed that the classes would only go ahead – and I would only be paid – if an adequate number of students enrolled. Moreover, the classes could be cancelled at any time if student numbers dropped.

Even worse, payment would only be for the hour or two spent teaching each week; it would not include any preparation or research time. A small amount extra would be paid for each assignment that had to be marked, but, again, there was no real guarantee as assignments were not obligatory. And the contract made it clear that open learning tutors were not regarded as members of staff, so would not be entitled to any sick pay or paid holidays.

Of course, I had known that this was not intended to be a full-time job or a substitute for an academic position. I already had a full-time non-academic job: the open learning course was only one evening a week. But I soon began to realise that the amount of work involved meant that full-time work alongside it was not a viable option.

Several friends suggested that if the course went ahead, I could perhaps switch to part-time instead. Even this, however, would have created financial difficulties. So after talking the idea over with my family and one of my former academic supervisors, I reluctantly decided to turn down the opportunity. Despite my enthusiasm for the subject and my desire and need for the experience, I wasn’t prepared to spend a vast amount of time devising a class that may or may not take place.

I don’t necessarily regret turning down the opportunity. In the past year, I have been fortunate enough to boost my academic CV in other ways, having had several articles published and having taken part in a televised panel discussion. However, I do believe that those who feel that they have no option but to accept such precarious positions should at least receive the financial remuneration and rights that they deserve.

As someone who has attended open learning classes in the past, I know that they can offer valuable learning opportunities for those who are retired, returning to education after a break or merely wanting to learn new skills. That is all the more reason that those who teach on such courses be made to feel valued.

The author prefers to remain anonymous.

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