University is jeopardising its reputation, say ‘exploited’, ‘undervalued’ and ‘entirely disposable’ GTAs

Published

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Kirsten Colligan

Rachael Bunyan
Reporter

“I wish there was a way to warn people and say ‘Listen, this happened. Don’t apply to the University of Glasgow. Go somewhere else. Do something else’”.

The Glasgow Guardian reported in November that many graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) from the University’s School of Social and Political Sciences had suffered financial difficulties as a result of their salaries being paid late. Some were unable to pay their rent, others had to borrow money to go on breaks with friends they had planned months earlier.

Even when payments reached their bank accounts, there was no clear breakdown of their hours on their payslip. Had they been paid the correct amount? Had they been paid for the time they needed to prepare for tutorials? Or to mark exam papers and essays? They had no idea.

Now a detailed investigation has revealed that those difficulties are just the tip of the iceberg – one that threatens the reputation of an institution recently named Scottish University of the Year.

Interviews with GTAs

One assistant says, “It’s my feeling, and the feeling of a lot of other GTAs, that we are not going to work at the University of Glasgow ever again. We think they are terrible employers”.

From our conversations with GTAs it appears that this is now an issue not only affecting the School of Social and Political Sciences but also a number of other Departments across the university. GTAs have told us that they feel “undervalued”, “exploited” and “entirely disposable”.

“The university authorities treat us as though we’re entirely replaceable labour,” said one GTA. “They know we need this income and so they exploit us. They seem to think it’s fine because there will always be another batch of GTAs applying to work here.”

Another GTA is so angry about the payment issues that he has contacted an employment lawyer.

A colleague is appalled that she had more employment rights and security while working in a minimum wage job in retail. “I knew that I’d be paid every month, and I knew how much that would be… At Glasgow University it’s not a bit like that. It’s a nightmare”.

The GTAs are concerned not just for themselves but also for the thousands of students who come to the University of Glasgow expecting the highest of standards. They have spoken to us on the condition that they remain anonymous.

The issue of late payment is a recurring issue for some GTAs three months on. One GTA who signed her contract in December 2017 to start work in January 2018 has now been told that she will not receive payment this month. This will undoubtedly lead to financial difficulties, as teaching is her sole income. Commenting on her colleague’s position, one GTA said: “This is despite the Glasgow University and College Union (UCU) informing the university that this was an illegal breach of contract when they delayed payments to other GTAs late in October last year. The University clearly assumes that because this is a smaller group of people, they’ll get away with it.”

Some claim to have been underpaid by nearly £1,000 in the past year, with one saying: “I don’t trust the University at all”.

Predictably, this has led to massive financial insecurity for many assistants. One GTA flew home for Christmas and spent money using a travel credit card, anticipating that she would get paid the correct amount. However, because her pay was less than what was due to her, she is now struggling to settle the card payments.

Another GTA said: “You can’t just tell your landlord ‘I’ll pay you at some point this year.’ We have told HR… they know that people are really struggling to pay their bills and they just don’t care.”

Others speak of health problems being made worse by the failure to pay them on time and in full. “I have a condition that can be triggered by stress”, said one. “I can only do so much, and my being ill is entirely linked to the university’s actions.”

They say it’s difficult enough to study for a PhD without having to suffer the stress caused by financial insecurity that goes on month after month. “I do part-time work in a restaurant and am having to do more there to make up for the money the university isn’t paying me. That then impacts on the relationship with my partner because I have less time to spend with her”, said another. One of her fellow GTAs recalls going to a GP appointment while still in the midst of marking: “I completely broke down and ended up being signed off for work, for the first time in my life”.

Another said she was finding it increasingly difficult “to fight this big institution”. “I’m just like, ‘You don’t value my work?’ I like teaching, but this constant battle is really getting me down”.

The same GTA highlighted what she sees as the hypocrisy of the University’s public pronouncements about mental health and its internal treatment of its staff. “The University of Glasgow is actually quite vocal about mental health, but doesn’t seem to care how it’s treating its teachers”.

A colleague said that “there’s this Mental Health Action Plan, but the people in charge don’t seem to see how their own actions are causing a lot of the mental health issues affecting their staff.”

The teaching assistant considering legal action is planning to ask colleagues if they want to join him. “I’m willing to pay for an employment lawyer, and I have the financial support of my partner. Hopefully this will help [the University] see that what they’re doing is hurting people in several different ways. And that we won’t sit on our hands.”

Some of the more vocal GTAs have argued that this is a structural issue and hold the University responsible. One GTA stated, “I don’t hold any of the individuals in HR responsible. I’m aware that this is a systemic issue.

“I hold management higher up responsible for this because no amount of ‘apologies’ makes up for the impact on a precarious worker of not being able to pay rent or bills.”

GTAs have noted their frustration with the Principal and Vice Chancellor, Anton Muscatelli, who has spoken publicly about how the University values teaching. “How important are we really if they don’t pay their teaching staff on time, or the correct amount? This University is the 2017 Scottish University of the Year and a Russell Group university, but it can’t even do the really basic stuff like paying its staff correctly.”

“For the University this is pennies but for us, this is our rent, this is a huge amount of money for us.”

Many of the GTAs we have spoken to fear the ongoing failure to pay them on time, in full and with properly documented payslips will have a negative impact on the University in terms of future recruitment.

One GTA said: “I know that Masters students who were thinking of becoming GTAs during their PhDs are now really questioning whether they want to be a GTA if they are going to be treated this badly. So this doesn’t just affect this year, it affects future years”.

A colleague suspects that the nature of the job market in academia will allow the University to “get away with treating GTAs and other fixed term workers like this”. However, she adds: “I would like to think that the University will recognise the damage this is doing to its reputation”.

Others have already had enough, with one saying: “I wish there was a way to warn people and say ‘Listen, this happened. Don’t apply to the University of Glasgow. Go somewhere else. Do something else’”.

GTAs have felt supported by their students and lecturers. GTAs mentioned how concerned their students have been about their well-being, with one student, Nerissa Howard, starting a petition.

Many GTAs referred to a letter, written by Dr Sarah Armstrong in support of the GTAs and signed by “a number of lecturers” as a positive step. One GTA said, “I was really happy that they publicly did this and spoke out about this. I think that it made a difference and it makes our argument stronger.”

A senior lecturer from the School of Social and Political Sciences was asked to comment on these issues, and said that “the Graduate Teaching Assistants are critical to our teaching efforts. Their enthusiasm and expertise are routinely noted and valued by students (evidenced by course evaluations). Because of their work my courses are stronger.”

“I would hope that Human Resources/Payroll were able to show respect for GTAs by understanding the reality of their work. Many teach multiple courses, often for different subject areas or schools. Even within a single course, it can be unclear, when GTAs are paid, whether this payment is for preparation, delivery of teaching or delivery of marking/feedback.”

They suggested that the errors in payment highlight the need for the system to evolve so as to include payslips that are itemised by course and by task.

“Critically, the solution should follow direct consultation with GTAs, who certainly can offer additional insight into the ideal way forward.”

“Creating this system undoubtedly will cost the institution, but the investment will reap dividends. GTAs will feel in control. Will be able to address mistakes efficiently. It will help them feel valued. Further, it will enable GTAs to pay their mortgages on time, their childcare on time, to pay for food, heating. Our GTAs do not live at home. They do not have substantial ‘other incomes’. They have dependents and commitments. The repercussions of not being paid on time, or not paid what they are due are massive.”

The University’s Response

A spokesperson for the University of Glasgow said: “The University is aware of a number of issues that have arisen this year in relation to the contracting and paying of our GTAs. Steps have been taken to address these and an apology was issued to all those potentially impacted. In addition, emergency payments were made where necessary to avoid financial distress. We believe that all such matters have now been resolved.
“A Working Group consisting of colleagues from HR, Recruitment and School Administration, along with representatives from UCU and the SRC has been established to review the process and the range of questions being raised to ensure that all lessons have been learned accordingly. Any individual who has outstanding questions is advised to contact their local HR teams.”

Analysis

Despite the University’s attempt to convince us that the issues of late payment and GTAs not being paid in full are matters that have “now been resolved”, the arguments raised by GTAs during our conversations seem to suggest otherwise. Far from being resolved, one GTA will go without payment in January despite signing her contract in December 2017 while others believe they have been underpaid.

These payment issues have a number of far-reaching impacts. Not only do they affect the financial and mental well-being of GTAs, but they could also affect the quality of teaching at the University as well as future recruitment of GTAs. If the “Scottish University of the Year” does not address its poor treatment of GTAs, it runs the risk of jeopardising its reputation as an academic powerhouse.

GTAs do most of the front-line teaching at the University. They are the students’ first port of call. They deserve to be paid on time, in full and with a breakdown of their hours. For such a wealthy and powerful institution to treat its academics like this is appalling. It can, and should, do better.