Graduate staff fight for fair pay

Published

Sarah Smith

University of Glasgow employees are campaigning for better working conditions, having received no rise in pay for seven years.

Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), many of whom are still studying as post-graduate students, have not received a pay increase since 2002 and, in some instances, are effectively earning less than the national minimum wage.

A letter and petition with 76 signatures, including those of senior members of staff, was submitted on December 17 to the Principal, the Secretary of Court, the Head of Human Resources, and to each Faculty Dean.

The letter claims that an increase in the hourly rates for graduate teaching assistants is long overdue, given that the last pay rise was made in October 2002 and consisted of an extra fifty-five pence per hour.

Guardian spoke to one of the campaign’s original activists about the situation many teaching assistants currently find themselves in.

The spokesperson for the campaign, who asked not to be named, explained: “Graduate teaching assistants are casual workers, meaning that they are hired without a contract.

“This is unusual because many other UK universities do provide a contract for teaching assistants, along with holiday and sick pay.

“Glasgow University claims that it is one of the top universities in the country for its outstanding teaching quality, however, a large proportion of its teaching staff are given only £17.85 per contact hour.”

The rates at which graduate teaching assistants are paid for marking can lead to their effectively earning less than the national minimum wage.
For each essay of up to 2000 words, the GTAs are paid £3.05; for each exam script they are paid £2.05.

In order to earn at least the current minimum wage of £5.77, a teaching assistant must mark two essays, or three exam scripts, per hour. This works out to half an hour spent marking each essay and only twenty minutes for every exam script.

The teaching assistant Guardian spoke to admitted that this was not enough time to mark a piece of work properly: “Sometimes, to read an essay of 2000 words takes forty-five minutes and for that you are paid £3.05. Then you might have to go back to it again later and over an hour you might only manage to mark one paper. Obviously, this works out at less than the minimum hourly rate recommended by the Government. Also, the minimum wage is increased every year, in line with inflation, but we haven’t had that.”

The low rate of pay means that many GTAs struggle to earn enough money to properly focus on their own studies.

Sarah Honeychurch, a graduate teaching assistant for the Department of Philosophy, explained to Guardian how she has had to take on other jobs in addition to studying for a PhD.

She said: “Last semester, each tutorial group I taught earned me £240 across a ten-week period, once I take into account the ten hours of tutoring and marking the essays and exam scripts.

“I do find the financial situation really stressful, particularly at the moment because I’m not getting enough teaching work from Glasgow to live on.

“I also teach at Aberdeen, Strathclyde and other colleges of further education. Between those four jobs I still don’t really have enough to live on.”

The campaign’s spokesperson believes that the teaching assistants are treated unfairly considering what an important part of the University’s staff they are:

“Most of the undergraduate teaching is carried out by GTAs, especially in the Faculty of Arts. If, one day, we stopped teaching, the University would come to a standstill. Many of us are the ones who have regular contact time with students.

“Most of us aren’t given a place to work from and we’re not really treated like members of staff. We are not paid for seeing students outside of our contact hour with that group. Every time a student asks for advice, we’re not paid for the time spent helping them.

“We are only paid for the tutorial hour, but it may be that an entire morning is spent answering emails or preparing for the class.”

The campaign was established at the beginning of November 2008, when three graduate teaching assistants decided that they should be taking action to improve their situation. The student who spoke to Guardian described how, after organising the letter and petition, they made sure to include the senior members of staff as well as other teaching assistants.

“We asked the help of senior members of staff to make them aware of what we were doing. It was important to us not to create an ‘us and them’ situation, so we made sure to involve them and asked for feedback on the letter.”

Despite the campaign being met with much support, its organisers felt that they were hampered by difficulties in communicating with the graduate teaching assistants as an entire group.

“The most difficult part was contacting other GTAs. We’re not registered or listed on the University website as staff, meaning that there is no way to communicate amongst ourselves. This had an effect on the turnout at some of the events we organised.

“We had great support from the academic staff and many of them signed the petition – even a few heads of departments. We believe that if we had had a better way of communicating then we would have had even more signatures.”

The campaign activist Guardian spoke to went on to explain that the situation at Glasgow University compared poorly with other higher education institutions.

“At, for example, Strathclyde University, the GTAs sign a contract every year which lasts from September until June. The pay there is £30 per contact hour, rather than £17.85. That does include marking but only the marking for the amount of students you teach so it’s a bit more balanced.

“At Glasgow, we don’t really exist. We don’t have a phone number and sometimes we just have our personal email addresses. Some of us don’t have access to the library because, if you are neither a student nor a member of staff, you cannot apply for a library card. It can be quite problematic.”

The campaign also hopes to achieve more in the way of standardisation across the University’s different departments.

The spokesperson for the campaign told Guardian: “Each department is different and there is no consistency as to whether you are paid for preparation and if so, how much you are paid. It also depends on the budget of the department.

“With a contract, we would hopefully have some sort of standardisation and some form of equality. At the moment, there is no acknowledgment for experience or for how many years you have done the job, or whether or not you have a PhD.”

A spokesman for the University told Guardian that the issues raised by the petition would be investigated thoroughly.

He explained: “The Director of Human Resources, Ian Black — on behalf of the Principal and Deans — has responded directly (on December 23, 2008) to the group of staff and graduate teaching assistants who submitted a letter and petition.

“This is a complex area and Human Resources will convene a group early this year to look in depth at these issues and develop appropriate ways forward.”

President of the SRC, Gavin Lee, supports the campaign and told Guardian that he hoped that the University would recognise the importance of its graduate teaching assistants.

He said: “Graduate teaching is an excellent developmental opportunity for senior and postgraduate students, and fulfils an essential role for the University. It is important that across the University it is treated as such. We’re looking forward to the outcome of the ongoing review.”

David Anderson, President of the University and College Union at Glasgow (UCUG), explained to Guardian how the UCUG have supported the graduate teaching assistants in their efforts to secure better working rights.

He said: “UCUG fully support the campaign run by the graduate teaching assistants at Glasgow University and, in fact, have attended a meeting to talk to the students.

“UCUG is very encouraged to see the GTAs organise themselves to put pressure on Glasgow University to negotiate with UCU these rates of pay.”
Anderson went on to explain that the issue of casual workers is a national problem.

He said: “Casual working is one of higher education’s biggest issues. It is well documented how this casual basis creates stress and anxiety, as well as causing difficulties in getting mortgages and creating long-term careers.

“UCU has spent many years fighting this and our latest campaign — Stamp Out Casual Contracts — has been very well supported, both locally and nationally. We hope that the pressure put on Glasgow University by the graduate teaching assistants will help move this process on and result in the GTAs being paid a fair rate for the very valuable work they do.”

The campaign’s spokesperson admitted that, if nothing was done to address the problems outlined in the letter, then further action would be considered.

“If it were required, we might have to strike, although the current lack of communication means that organising such a thing would be extremely difficult.”

Whilst prepared to take such steps if necessary, the campaign’s organisers hope that the University will respond to the petition and improve the working lives of its employees.

At the time of going to press, there has been no other response to the campaign’s petition since that sent by Mr. Black on December 23.