The issues with Graduate Teaching contracts


Credit: Raymond McCrae

Hamish Morrison

In November last year, The Glasgow Guardian reported that almost half of the University of Glasgow’s teaching and teaching-research staff were on non permanent or hourly contracts. The majority of people on these contracts are graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), who are paid on an hourly basis for a number of teaching and demonstrator roles. Previously, such roles were done casually and without a contract at all.

The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Graeme Cowie, a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) in the law school, and author of a letter published in The Glasgow Guardian in response to the aforementioned article, about the situation GTAs face. Cowie’s main concern with regards to GTA contracts was the fact that they do not properly account for the amount of time required to prepare for classes. “[In] the letter I sent to the Guardian, I pointed out the hours credited often don’t reflect the time actually spent preparing… This is more of a problem for those teaching one or two classes, rather than those who teach three or four of the same class because then [the preparation] doubles up. When you are paid on the basis of an hourly contract rate that is felt more acutely, if you are in a full time post you are paid on the basis of a presumed number of hours. I don’t think the University does enough to establish just how much or how little preparation has to go into – on the GTAs’ part – preparing for a class. Even within a subject you will find that the preparation, from fortnight to fortnight, will vary wildly. There have been some tutorials I’ve taught, two-hour long tutorials that have required about a day’s preparation for; there have been others that require half an hour to an hour’s preparation. In terms of week-to-week that’s something you can do in terms of spreading that workload out more evenly, but the way the you’re credited for that work is completely arbitrary. In the law school we are paid the equivalent of half an hour’s prep time. When that can fluctuate from less than a day to significantly more than that it doesn’t really reflect the efforts you’re actually putting in”.

With regards to the security offered by these contracts, and the move away from casual work, Cowie was sceptical, saying, “I was always quite cynical of this move by the University to move GTAs onto minimum guaranteed hours contracts rather zero hour contracts, because we are essentially casual workers. We don’t have the same kind of security of tenure [as permanent members of teaching staff]. Realistically you could end up with folk that have worked within one of the schools or departments for several years whose employment rights are akin to someone that they have brought in for a few weeks to fill in a gap, in terms of security”. Cowie also spoke of long-term research students, in postgraduate schemes for a number of years, “who are likely to become a de facto member of the teaching unit, but who don’t have the kind of security that a full time teaching contract would offer”.

On the actual rate of pay for GTAs, Cowie said that it was “fairly reasonable” (the University of Glasgow is an accredited Living Wage employer), however what was needed was for the University to reevaluate how GTAs’ hours are worked out, to more accurately reflect the actual number of hours worked. “What I think the uni should be doing is looking far more closely at how this preparation time equivalent is calculated. They should be looking to audit courses to find out how much prep is reasonable for any given course. It seems too blunt of an instrument to say ‘an hour’s contact time is half an hour’s prep time’. It might be in some circumstances; in the overwhelming number of circumstances it’s not. And if that means that they have to differentiate pay a little more between GTAs, based on which courses they are doing – fair enough. I suspect their response would be, ‘we haven’t the money to do this and even if we did distinguish it would be too complicated to implement’. As someone who has had to deal with the HR payroll stuff online… it shouldn’t have to be that complicated, but they can try to make it so”. The problem, it seems, comes down to a lack of communication between GTAs and the University: “the University needs to be, first and foremost, asking GTAs, ‘how much work are you actually doing that [aren’t] contact hours?’ There’s a lack of a desire to monitor these issues. First and foremost, let’s get some clear information; some facts – how much work is it these folk are actually doing? Secondly, look at how reasonable is it that they are having to do that sort of work, and then thirdly, how it should be credited relative to contact hours?”

Another GTA interviewed by the Glasgow Guardian, who wished to remain anonymous, also noted the problem of a lack of communication and organisation on the part of the University. “What is tricky is that you don’t find out about how much work you’re going to do until maybe August… which makes it quite difficult to plan for the rest of the year. You don’t always know if they’re going to offer you work next year either, because they need to work within a budget and they don’t know what staff they’ll have… Things over the summer could happen a lot more quickly; more efficiently. Line managers put requests in in June for these hours and this amount of the budget to be spent, and they don’t hear back until August”.

They also mentioned the pressures put on GTAs with regards to preparation time for classes and with the rates of pay for marking. “For prep time you’re on a hourly half rate, so half the rate for prep time. Even for a basic class it’s quite tight to do an hour’s prep time, so say you have a large amount of reading to do for this one seminar, that can be quite tight. With marking, basically they set an estimate based on the level and the number of words, based on how much they think you can do in an hour, but it’s quite ambitious. The people that employ you do admit that the marking rates are rubbish. They’re really apologetic for it, but there’s obviously nothing they can do about it, because the budget comes from a much higher level”.

Both GTAs interviewed seemed resigned to the fact that significant changes to their situation, in terms of rate of pay relative to hours worked, was unlikely to change any time soon. Strike action and other forms of industrial action are not open to GTAs, in real terms because of the impact this would have on their pay packets in the immediate sense. However, there seemed to be a real appetite for change in the way the University structures their roles, and most importantly an emphasis on the need to the University to better organise and communicate with GTAs.