‘We’re worth more’: casual teaching staff fight back

Graduate teaching assistants are campaigning to improve temporary workers’ low pay and poor treatment. How is the battle going?

August 27, 2015
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No university corridor is complete without a photograph of a bygone head of department, a notice about what to do in the event of a fire and a smattering of harassed doctoral students scuttling between the seminar room, the library and the laboratory.

In addition to doing their research, they are trying to prepare an undergraduate lecture, devise a reading list for a related seminar group and worrying about when they will get time to mark the ensuing pile of essays. But such is life for those who hope to boost their employment prospects by taking on a graduate teaching assistant role.

Nor do GTAs necessarily move on once they have secured their doctorate. Many early career academics continue to piece together a living on several fractional or hourly paid teaching contracts to keep their toes in the waters of academia while they fish desperately for a fixed-term position.

It can be a demoralising existence; common complaints include low pay that does not reflect hours worked, job insecurity, isolation and a lack of institutional support and respect. Earlier this year, in an article for Times Higher Education, one temporary assistant lecturer likened himself to a shipwrecked sailor foraging for scraps of food from a rock in the Atlantic Ocean (“Help! I can’t make it on scraps alone”, Features, 4 June).

“Some assistant lecturers do more teaching than salaried staff while lacking employment benefits, security and respect. The contingent and temporary nature of the work, combined with the last-minute nature of its organisation, incentivises poor teaching,” he wrote.

Regarding pay, an investigation last year by THE revealed wide variations among universities. Out of 50 institutions surveyed, more than 20 pay a minimum rate of less than £15 an hour, but others offer more than £40. Rates can vary significantly even from department to department within the same institution.

But over the past year or so, several grass-roots groups of GTAs and other casualised teaching staff have begun to speak up about their plight – and have already scored some successes.

For Kenneth Wann, deputy dean of Cardiff University’s University Graduate College, the protest movement may be the result of the pressures on PhD students to juggle too many activities. The research councils expect them to complete within four years while also publishing papers and getting involved with public engagement and enterprise activities. Meanwhile, the push for teaching excellence means universities often expect applicants for permanent jobs to have mentoring and teaching experience. “It is a big ask,” Wann says.

The first campaign to have national impact was at Soas, University of London. There, the Fractionals for Fair Play (FFFP) campaign was launched in response to an internal survey of teaching staff on fractional contracts that suggested that more than half the hours they worked went unpaid.

James Eastwood, a PhD candidate and GTA in the department of politics and international studies at Soas, says that the survey “both confirmed and exceeded our worst fears about what was going on, and also gave a sense to people that what they might have perceived about individual or exceptional circumstances was actually quite a pattern across the school”.

In April 2014, members of the group refused to mark assignments, which they deemed unpaid labour. They also demanded changes to their employment terms, including payment for the time required for preparation and office hours, as well as marking. According to the campaigners, Soas claimed that responding to their demands would cost between £1.4 million and £1.7 million a year, which was unaffordable. Instead, the school offered payment for time spent on obligatory training courses and, after further negotiation, more pay for preparation, taking it to a level that it claimed exceeded that offered by all other universities it had looked at.

But this final offer was rejected by the campaign group in July 2014. According to Eastwood, who is also a GTA representative on the University and College Union executive committee at Soas, “there was a strong feeling that those improvements were not sufficient”. The school went on to recruit fractional teaching staff for the 2014-15 academic year using the revised contracts, but about 80 fractional staff signed a petition to say that they had taken up the contracts only under protest.

Richard Black, pro-director of research and enterprise at Soas, says that the campaign prompted the school to be “clearer about when and why it uses fractional teaching staff”. It will continue to use GTAs, both because such roles offer an “important part” of career development for PhD students and because they bring a “fresh and interesting perspective” to the classroom. However, Soas is trying to use fewer staff in temporary teaching positions.

Black acknowledges that employing PhD students to teach comes with a host of challenges. Good training and mentoring needs to be in place to ensure quality of teaching, and the amount of time that students need to prepare is likely to be unreasonable unless the courses they are assigned are matched to their knowledge and experience.

“There is also a problem where PhD students without a bursary seek to teach in order to fund their studies. If the volume of teaching is more than [they] expected it can become difficult to manage, leading either to a poor student experience and or a lack of progress on the PhD,” he adds.

In light of this, Soas is instituting more fully funded PhD places. “Ideally, these scholarships would involve a limited amount of teaching…to defray the cost of the scholarship in a limited way, and also to provide a career development opportunity,” Black says. But he concedes that this is costly, and it also clashes with the research councils’ insistence that their funded students are paid for teaching on top of their scholarship.

Since Soas introduced its new contracts, the FFFP group has been working closely with its local branch of the UCU to elicit further concessions. But it has failed to persuade the branch committee and regional office to escalate the issue to a formal industrial dispute. Eastwood puts this down to “various difficulties and pressures inside the branch”, adding that the shift in emphasis from running an autonomous campaign to “trying to persuade what was effectively a bureaucracy and a union machine to support us” turned off a lot of supporters. Neither the branch nor the campaign is to blame, he says, but he has found it “frustrating” that the union’s priority has been to protect the pay and conditions of permanent staff.

Jonathan White, a bargaining, policy and negotiations officer at the UCU, admits that it has a “job to do to ensure that this issue is high up on [all] branch agendas”. Although many branches regard improving the conditions of casual teaching staff as part of their long-term strategic objectives, some do not. This is because although more casual staff and GTAs are joining the union, full-time workers still tend to make up the core of branch membership, and there may be a “time lag” before national priorities filter down to the local level, White explains.

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“The worst thing would be for the interests of casualised and permanent staff to be pitched against each other, because that is exactly how university managements will be allowed to carry on determining the agenda in terms of casualised staff,” he says. “What will determine whether this [movement] decisively changes things will ultimately be the strength of the union and its ability to turn the campaigning energy into collective bargaining and results.”

The campaign at Soas may not have extracted as many concessions as it would have liked over the past year, but it has built a national network to address the issues. Fighting Against Casualisation in Education, or FACE, hosted its first conference at Soas in February and heard from delegates from at least nine universities who were considering or had begun campaigns of their own for fairer pay and conditions.

At Queen Mary University of London, the Queen Mary Against Casualisation (QMAC) group formed after individuals met at an event held by FFFP in November 2014. One complaint of the group is that hourly paid teachers at the institution have not had a pay rise since 2008, and a campaign to push for one is now under way with the local branch of the UCU. A statement from the group says that PhD cohorts “are often treated as a source of cheap labour” and frequently bear “large responsibilities [for] teaching on core undergraduate modules, without adequate pay or training”.

At the annual Queen Mary Doctoral College Debate in June, principal Simon Gaskell admitted that there had been an oversight in the way that teaching assistant pay had been dealt with. He also said that the university was discussing the possibility of changing the status of its PhD students to employees. Speaking to THE at the time, he said that although there were “real practical difficulties” involved, universities should take this idea “very seriously”.

What such a move would mean for doctoral students’ remuneration for teaching work remains to be seen. But QMAC is clear about the wider implications if the current situation continues: “Only the wealthiest and most privileged in society can afford to work for a pittance. This has clear ramifications for what the academy of the future is going to look like,” its statement says.

While some groups are still in the early stages of enacting change, others can already boast significant success. Campaigners at the University of Warwick, for instance, claim credit for the axeing earlier this year of a controversial new academic services department, known as TeachHigher, that would have overseen the employment of casual staff.

Warwick said that the aim of the department was to introduce “transparency and consistency” between departments and to address differences in pay between them. But the UCU argued that it could leave workers with less favourable terms and conditions, and FACE feared that the service could be franchised and rolled out nationwide in a similar way to Unitemps, a temporary employment agency for service staff that also started life at Warwick.

A spokesman for the university says that TeachHigher was abandoned because its structure had become a “distraction”, but that Warwick is “continuing to work closely” with six academic departments to develop new employment structures that are transparent, consistent and relate to each other.

Duncan Adam, Warwick UCU’s vice-president, thinks that the “broad consensus” among staff against TeachHigher played a large part in the decision to disband it. “Generally, heads of departments were not so keen on the model,” he says. Warwick’s English department voted against sourcing its teaching staff from TeachHigher, while, according to campaigners, hourly paid teachers in the sociology department wrote to the university to say that they would not accept employment under TeachHigher terms.

“The university did not like the bad publicity it was getting…and it was concerned that we were going to have a demonstration against casualisation on an open day,” Adam adds. “If the opposition had just come from certain quarters, or been more limited and less visible, the university might have pressed ahead.”

But the complaints of Warwick’s casual staff have not gone away, and the UCU and the campaigners are pushing for a collective agreement outlining their duties. The campaign has had some success in preliminary talks to boost pay in certain departments, notably history, and, in June, Warwick campaigners hosted a national assembly against casualisation attended by 50 people from 10 different institutions.

One of the outcomes of that event was a pledge to create a handbook on fighting casualisation that will be sent to every university in the country. With FACE also planning a national conference this autumn, it is clear that the issues surrounding temporary teaching work will not be going away any time soon.

“These campaigns are really helping to raise the profile of the issue of GTAs,” the UCU’s White says. “There is a critical mass of campaigning energy building up.”

Meanwhile, Soas’ Black concludes that universities need to look at how they work with early career researchers to ensure that their contributions are properly recognised and that the pipeline of future scholars is diverse.

“My hope is that we can have a more constructive dialogue – to address problems that exist, but in a way that recognises the pressures that universities are also under,” he says.

A clash at King’s: ‘without us, the university simply would not function’

One of the most recent campaigns to emerge for better pay and conditions for graduate teaching assistants is at King’s College London.

In May, a group of King’s GTAs published a survey of 200 of their colleagues that found that 95 per cent worked longer than their contracted hours. More than half said that this affected the quality of their teaching, marking and feedback.

The King’s management responded by launching a major review of the situation. A report has been written, but so far the details have not been made public.

Karen O’Brien, vice-principal for education at King’s, does not think that the GTAs’ survey was “entirely accurate” as it did not amount to a “systematic capturing of data”. She insists that the institution does not ask its GTAs to do any unpaid work, but adds that if there is a perception that hourly rates of pay do not adequately capture the work done, King’s is “very willing to talk”.

The King’s investigation, she says, found that there was some variation in marking standards and the university recognises that there needs to be discussion about how many exam scripts or essays can be marked in an hour.

“Student expectations about feedback…have gone up dramatically in recent years. We probably need to catch up with that in terms of how we allocate time to marking,” O’Brien says.

In a statement, the campaign group says: “We are concerned that [management] referred to GTA positions as apprenticeships rather than recognising our work as paid labour. [This] overlooks the fact that the university simply would not function without our work.”

The statement adds that the campaign has had some early success. Both the geography and English departments have “intimated that small improvements in contracts are likely for next year”. And GTAs in English have received a small bonus to recognise the unpaid work that they have carried out in the past year.

Holly Else


Print headline: Because we’re worth it

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Reader's comments (1)

The Pro Vicechancellor for Postgraduate education at Warwick is Jan Palmowski, the architect of staff cuts in the Arts and Humanities at Kings College London in 2010. It is inconceivable that a reputable university could have hired him.