Over the past 18 months, the Fair Pay for GTAs [FP4GTAs] campaign has been working to address the issue of the untenable working conditions and hiring practices experienced by GTAs across King’s College London (and UK Universities more broadly).
What is a GTA?
GTAs [Graduate Teaching Assistants] are PhD students who, in the course of their study, are employed to assume teaching positions and marking responsibilities on a short-term basis within a university department, typically for the duration of one or two terms at a time. This most often happens at the university where they do their PhD, but it is increasingly common for PhD students to teach at multiple institutions at one time.
The role description of GTAs often differs from faculty to faculty, or department to department, depending on the forms of teaching particular to specific subjects, and on the lack of any standard practices with regard to GTA employment even within a single department.
In many cases, GTAs teach multiple seminars of around 20 students on first-year modules that are convened by more senior staff. They are paid at an hourly rate for the hour of teaching, a minimal amount of preparation time, an office hour, and in some cases for attendance of the weekly module lecture that structures the content of the seminar. They receive anywhere between two and six hours of training, in total, the week before they begin teaching undergraduates whose fees start at £9000 per year.
The reality of the GTA position is both a product of and catalyst for the rampant marketisation and casualisation that structures the university. For PhD students, the GTA position is presented as an “experience” or “opportunity” that doesn’t really amount to a job, is not treated as such by anyone but themselves and their students, yet remains “necessary” for the prospects of ever getting a job after the PhD. Most undergraduate students are unaware of any distinctions between GTAs and other staff. For Early Career Researchers and other academics it is an engine of job precarity and scarcity. For the university it is a cheap source of labour with no long-term investment or contractual responsibility, enabling a fully “resilient” business model that can adapt to market demands and facilitate rapid organisational change. All GTAs, whether funded or not, are paying the university annual student fees for their PhD.
The ambiguity and excessive time demands placed on those who simultaneously function as PhD students and GTA staff within the university makes broader efforts at organisation, union engagement, and the maintenance of any sort of mental wellbeing increasingly impossible.
What has King’s done?
Until this summer, King’s held no central record of the percentage of teaching undertaken by GTAs, whether at department or faculty levels. Despite repeated requests, some departments and faculties are still unable to produce this information. Given the ad hoc nature of GTA employment, the transience and rate of turnover conveniently exceeds administrative accounting.
Last summer, a GTA Strategy Group was established by King’s Senior Management Team in response to a survey carried out by FP4GTAs in Autumn 2018, and following persistent lobbying by FP4GTAs via email and in person, supported by the KCL student newspaper, Roar. The survey extensively detailed the incompatibility between GTA contracts and the actual hours GTAs are working to carry out their teaching across the university, and the various costs of these conditions on GTAs across King’s.
Research by the Strategy Group last summer conservatively estimated that GTAs constitute almost 30% of all teaching in each of the A&H [Arts & Humanities], SSPP [Social Science, Politics, Philosophy], and NMS [Natural and Mathematical Sciences] faculties. Members of the Strategy Group, Senior Management Team, and Heads of Faculty were all “surprised” that the percentages were so high. In other faculties the number is somewhere between 5-10%. In some departments, GTAs constitute upwards of 70% of first-year teaching.
All of this is an important preface to the email sent to Postgraduate Research students in Arts and Humanities by the Faculty Dean on the 28th April 2020 (click link for PDF version of the email in full).
The email states the necessary postponement of decisions on the availability of GTA positions for the next academic year.
It also states that ‘there are likely to be some differences in the number and nature of opportunities that we will be able to offer across the Faculty next year.’ Given the devastating uncertainty of the present and ongoing circumstances related to COVID-19, this is perhaps unsurprising.
However, the more deeply rooted conditions enabling the language of the email, and the attitude it demonstrates towards the GTA position, should not be ignored.
The email does not go into any more detail about these prospective “differences”, nor about any planning the Faculty is doing for those eventualities, nor about any channels of communication open to PhD students / GTAs going forward in light of this lack of information. This is in spite of the fact that FP4GTAs established an A&H GTA forum at the start of this year with representatives from each department and a Chair that sits on the FEC [Faculty Education Committee] meetings, to enable the possibility of discussion and engagement between management and staff (because GTAs are staff) on precisely these sorts of issues.
This is also in spite of the fact that after over a year of meetings, in late February of this year the GTA Strategy Group submitted a proposed amendment to the structuring of GTA contracts that included improvements to remuneration rates for preparation time, office hours, lecture attendance, and marking. It also aimed to standardise the payment of GTAs for any mandatory training, teaching allocation practices, and other issues, to address “arresting levels of inconsistency and variability in the terms and conditions offered to GTAs across King’s”. The proposal was subsequently approved “with enthusiasm” by the Senior Management Team at King’s, and as recently as 7th April, the Chair of the Strategy Group (and Vice-Dean of Education across King’s) stated that they remained committed to implementing the model for September 2020, as had been planned and agreed by SMT on 27th February. Many issues remain unaddressed or inadequately accounted for by this model, and FP4GTAs has continued to lobby for improvement.
Does King’s have a plan for Covid-19?
It is unclear how the A&H faculty’s current position and future plans regarding GTA teaching stand in relation to the acknowledgement by the Senior Management Team and GTA Strategy Group of the inherent failures around the organisation of GTA teaching, training, and employment at King’s and the proposed plans to address them.
The email continues with the following paragraph:
“I appreciate that this may be unwelcome news, and that this may introduce uncertainties for some of you who may factor GTA work into your own plans for next year. Please rest assured that we continue to value enormously the work that you do as GTAs, both in terms of your contribution to the learning experience of our taught students, but also in terms of the value of the GTA experience to your own development.”
The equivocation and excessive conditionality of the language used here is insidious. At each opportunity, the phrasing elides the economic and professional reality of GTA employment, the very structure of which now enables the university to effectively cut large percentages of teaching costs without it being considered as such.
Instead, the GTA position is recoded as a “contribution” to students’ “learning experience” and an intangible “value” for the “development” of PhDs themselves. The very real and precarious economic realities of postgraduate research students, at this particular moment in time, and with the additional living costs of London, is translated into a language of “uncertainties” and personal “plans”. Once again, no means of engagement or timeline for further information is given.
The email concludes:
“It will continue to be a priority for us to try to find opportunities for you to learn and develop as tutors in the course of your studies.”
“Opportunity” and “development” are restated to translate what will likely be even more ad-hoc forms of even less adequately trained and paid forms of teaching, which will in turn be sold to any incoming students as industry-leading, regardless of the reality of the circumstances.
A huge amount of effort, energy, and commitment is being dedicated to adapting the university to these singular times, all under the banner of the venerable “King’s community”. GTAs are a vital part of this community. To place them so definitively in suspension runs counter to the very ideals King’s is attempting to rally around at this time.
To help support PGRs/GTAs at King’s, please sign our open letter to the Faculty and King’s Senior Management calling on them to respond to the following outstanding questions arising from their email:
Questions arising for the A&H Faculty and King’s College London senior management:
- Do KCL (and/or the A&H Faculty) currently have provisional plans for the various outcomes intimated in the email?
- What are the different scenarios described in these plans, and the corollary implications on teaching for GTAs and staff more broadly?
- Are KCL currently planning for online teaching in September?
- How many students do KCL (and/or the A&H Faculty) anticipate will be starting in September in these different scenarios?
- How many GTA positions are anticipated across Arts and Humanities in 2020-2021, and how does this compare to 2019-2020 numbers?
- What does the Faculty (and/or College) plan to do for postgraduate research students who had anticipated and depended upon teaching income next year, and for whom there is likely to minimal job alternatives at this time?
- Who will be making decisions about GTA allocation, training, and teaching strategy at Faculty and Department level? How and when will these decisions be made?
- What is the latest date by which KCL will inform GTAs if they will be teaching in September?
- Why are there no plans to consult prospective GTAs in any part of this process?
- If any GTAs are recruited, what will the terms of their training, preparation time, marking, and hourly pay look like?
- Is the A&H Faculty aware of the recent proposal regarding GTA contracts put forward by the Strategy Group and endorsed by the SMT (27th Feb) for implementation by September 2020?
We have sent the above article and questions to the senior management team at King’s, and await a response.
We are asking everyone who supports the campaign: GTAs, staff, students, to Please sign our open letter to the Faculty and King’s Senior Management.