Response to Arts and Humanities GTA COVID communications

Please sign our open letter to the Faculty and King’s Senior Management.

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.

In solidarity,

FP4GTAs

Campaign update March 2019-March 2020

We know things have looked a little quiet recently on this blog. Ongoing meetings (that both have and have not gone anywhere) with College, strikes in spring, and now COVID have all made knowing what to communicate and how more difficult.

Now seems a good time to take stock of what we’ve done since our last post on this blog (March 2019), and where the campaign is currently at.

We want to reassure GTAs at King’s that Fair Pay for GTAs is still very much alive: after all – – YOU are the campaign!

Every GTA at King’s is a member of this campaign if you want to be, and every email you send to managers asking for better conditions is part of the campaign.

But the campaign priorities have shifted in line with current events (although preparation pay and training are still also at the top of the agenda). If there’s something going on in your department, you have outstanding pay that hasn’t arrived, you’ve been over-worked with moving to online teaching, or you’re worried about whether or not GTA teaching will be an option for you in 2020/2021, please be in touch and we can work out together what to do (with our colleagues in UCU). We have a new email address on our about page.

Below is a brief timeline since March 2019, our current demands that we are addressing to the College, and a call to action.

Spring 2019

Campaign members continued to attend the GTA Liaison Group, led by Nigel Eady and Jess Philips.

We continued to push the College for numbers: they still can’t tell us how many GTAs there are, or exactly how much teaching is done by us. PhD students around the university helped the campaign to gather numbers ourselves: and we found that in some departments GTAs deliver over 70% of first year seminars.

We continued to call for a total review of how GTAs are paid, how we are trained, and how we are remunerated for both.

Brexit, among other things, was blamed for the College being reticent to promise any changes to our prep time. This, despite being told over and over again that the College DOES recognise that we work far more hours than we are paid, just to do the basics of the job.

We were told multiple times by senior members of College management to go on strike.

May 2019

We attended a Senior Management Team meeting and presented the GTA survey results to the Principal and his team of VPs. We pressed the group to accelerate their response to our demands, and to instigate a group that would review the role, training, and pay of GTAs.

Summer 2019

Following months of lobbying, and our appearance at SMT, the College set up the GTA Strategy Group, led by the Vice Principal Nicola Philips. The group’s task was to present a new model for GTA pay, training, and terms and conditions to the College senior management team.

At our Liaison Group meetings we continued to feed back on a variety of models that were being considered by the Strategy Group: for instance, a model which would see GTA teaching rolled into a PhD scholarship (ie. PhD funding which came with mandatory teaching) was firmly rejected, as this is a model which other universities have moved away from following pressure from PhD students.

Autumn 2019

The original timeline for the Strategy Group was to wrap up by September to present a new model to SMT. This deadline continued to slip… and still does.

The campaign now had a stronger voice on the Strategy Group following the KCLSU KDSA election, which saw a campaign member elected to the KDSA (and so became an ex oficio member of the Strategy Group). Until this point, KCL had refused to allow campaign members to participate in the Strategy Group directly, and the existing KDSA reps had continually missed meetings. Bureaucracy at its finest.

We continue to push for UCU reps to be allowed to attend the Strategy Group, and are repeatedly refused.

February 2020

We ensured that pay and conditions of GTAs and all hourly-paid and contracted staff at King’s was on the agenda during the February strikes. We spoke at teach outs, and continued to attend meetings with College (on non strike days), sending emails to VPs, to keep pressure on the GTA Strategy Group to meet a decision deadline for September 2020.

At an SMT meeting on 27 February, King’s proposed the following changes to their GTA framework:

 

  • 2:1 preparation time, regardless of repeat delivery – GTAs will be paid for 2 hours of preparation for every 1 hour of contact time, and this ratio stays regardless of how many classes GTAs teach
    • This is double the previous ratio for people who teach more than one class, which was 2:1 and did not account for repeat delivery of classes
  • 1 hour of paid time for support/feedback, per class, per week
    • Previously, GTAs were paid for 1 hour of time for support/feedback regardless of the number of classes they taught
  • GTAs will be paid for 6 hours of training per academic year – this is no improvement for most Arts and Humanities and SSPP GTAs
  • Marking will be paid at 1 hour per student for course work, and 0.5 hours per student for exam scripts.
    • This could be up to 4x the current pay, but is less transparent (eg. does not account for varying length of exam scripts, a 1000 word essay, 2000 word essay, or 4000 word essay would apparently attract the same pay).

 

These changes are the direct result of the campaign’s demands and engagement with the college over the last year, and while welcome, do not address concerns around casualisation, the race and gender pay gap, and portfolio simplification. We also identified issues around transparency and fairness in pay, especially in the proposed marking model.

Spring 2020

We continued to lobby the Strategy Group to confirm what changes will be made for GTA prep time and pay for September 2020.

King’s opened up applications for GTA positions for 2020/2021, still without confirming any changes to GTA terms and conditions or training that its very own, senior management-led, review had confirmed were inadequate.

King’s Academy – the very small team of hard-working, under resourced staff who are responsible for not only training GTAs but running training across the College (eg. most training sessions you see offered via Skillsforge)

UCU reps report that in meetings with SMT, the ‘GTA campaign’ are happy with proposals from the Strategy Group…

See the next blog post for our current actions.

Campaign update 18/03

Actions – can you help?

 

1. Sign the open letter to College, and ask your students and staff colleagues to do so too. Some high profile staff in the English Department have signed – can you find any sympathetic lecturers and professors in your department? www.tinyurl.com/SupportKCLGTAs

 

2. Ask your department office or GTA lead if they can help you organise a meeting for GTAs in your department, or can collate feedback via email. This is something that Jon Wilson, Vice Dean of Arts and Humanities has said he is encouraging ‘from above’. If you’ve already got good GTA / Department feedback mechanisms then that’s great – please can you nudge your department to push up all feedback to the Faculty too. The College have implied that the feedback we’ve collected is overly negative or biased – so it would be great if GTA feedback on prep and training was coming through College channels too!

The College are refusing to believe that most GTAs in Arts and Humanities and SSPP in particular need more preparation time – even though we have strong survey data to back up our point and when we visit GTAs in different departments everyone is saying the same thing. If everyone could email just a couple of sentences to the GTA campaign email address kclfairpayforgtas [at] gmail.com about why 2:1 prep time is inadequate, along with the department that you’re in, that would be so helpful!

3. Help us count how many, and what proportion, of classes are taught by hourly-paid folks in your department – email kclfairpayforgtas at gmail dot com if you can do this.

4. NEXT COLLEGE MEETING: Can you make it to the GTA – College meeting on the 3 April? We’re looking for people who can come and talk about their experience of training, teaching, marking, or any other part of being a GTA in their department for 1-2 minutes. We’re especially keen to hear from History, French, Spanish, German, CMCI, Film, Classics, Digital Humanities, Philosophy, Music, War Studies, Geography, Physics, Maths. Get in touch at the usual email.

5. Forward this info to your GTA colleagues – and ask them to sign up to the mailing list too by emailing kclfairpayforgtas at gmail dot com!

Campaign update: initial survey results

Below are the preliminary findings from two Fair Pay for GTAs surveys which ran between November 2018 and February 2019, to collect evidence on the working conditions and pay of GTAs at KCL. 205 responses were recorded on the main GTA survey, which includes people teaching in 2018/2019 and those who taught in 2017/2018. A second survey captured 43 responses from PhD students who have chosen not to teach.

The primary GTA survey focused on: whether GTAs are paid fairly; whether GTAs work more than they are contracted for; the sort of work GTAs are doing; and whether GTAs report that quality of teaching is affected by poor working and pay conditions.

Key Findings

The results show that a majority of GTAs 1) work more than their contracted hours, 2) feel they are paid unfairly, and 3) do not feel valued by the College.

Further, the results show that GTAs consistently overextend themselves in order to provide quality teaching and feedback.

 

  • 87.8% of GTAs at King’s College London work more than their contracted hours in order to properly perform their teaching duties, with 75% ‘often’ or ‘very often’ working more hours than they are paid for.
  • Only 6% of GTAs never work over their contracted hours.
  • 57% of GTAs believe overall GTA work is paid unfairly or very unfairly
  • 60% of GTAs believe marking is paid unfairly or very unfairly
  • 69% of GTAs believe preparation is paid unfairly or very unfairly
  • Only 49% of GTAs say pay compromises overall quality of teaching, indicative of how GTAs work beyond their contracted hours to deliver high-quality teaching

 

You can find the full results of the main GTA survey: GTA Survey All Results and long-form comments: GTA Survey All Comments.

You can find the responses to the GTA opportunities survey, for people who have not been able to teach or have chosen not to teach: GTA Opportunities Survey All Results.

The GTA campaign are still working through the huge amounts of numerical and qualitative data from the surveys. If you are a PhD student at King’s and you can help us produce a comprehensive report, please be in touch at kclfairpayforgtas [at] gmail.com

Campaign update 04/01/2019

A quick reminder of GTA campaign activity for the term ahead, and what you can do to secure better pay and conditions for all hourly-paid workers.

1. We will be meeting on Wednesday 23 January, 3:30-5pm. This is an open meeting, and we’ll be discussing the draft College GTA policy document. College have invited us to suggest concrete changes. Please find that document at this Google Drive link, and add in your comments by 10pm Monday 21 January:

[link now removed, email kclfairpayforgtas [at] gmail.com to access]

There are some good parts to the document, so please add comments that are both positive and negative! At the campaign open meeting on the 23rd, we will go over the document and draw together everyone’s suggestions.

2. Following this, we will have another GTA – College meeting on 13 Feburary 2pm-3:30pm, room tbc. If you can make it, please let us know.

3. Please continue to circulate the GTA survey http://tinyurl.com/kclgtasurvey.

Please send the link around all mailing lists, friends, colleagues, research group people that you know. Perhaps you can ask your friendly department office to circulate? Let us know if you can do this, as it will help us share work loads. The survey is a key tool for the campaign, it is vital that we reach as many GTAs as we can! Many mid-level College staff (GTA leads, PhD supervisors, and professional services folks) have been really helpful in the sharing the survey, so please reach out to staff you know in your home departments who might have access to mailing lists.

4. Thank you so much to the people who’ve already said they can help with survey analysis. We’re still looking for a couple more people to really get to grips with the results. We’re closing the survey on 4th February, so if you’re free that week please be in touch! kclfairpayforgtas [at] gmail.com

5. Make sure you’ve joined UCU or, if you’re already a member, that your details are up to date. A new UCU pay and equality ballot opens on the 14th January, so be ready to vote! https://www.ucu.org.uk/free

Remember: we are essentially asking College to double the amount that they spend on GTA labour, and hugely increase their spending on training and support. We can only win this with a massive group effort! Thanks for everything you’ve done already to support the campaign, and here’s to 2019!

Campaign update 29/11/2018

Some initial success!

We found out late last week that College Education Committee were planning on approving a new GTA policy on Wednesday 28th, that had implications for our training, pay, and ‘status’. We successfully lobbied the Committee to withdraw the paper and return to meaningful consultation with GTAs – thank you to everyone who sent an email to the Commitee! We will let you know when a time, date, place for that meeting is secured. We will also arrange a strategy meeting for GTAs to get together and decide on approaches and priorities. In the meantime, please keep sharing the GTA survey with your colleagues or teachers (and fill it in yourself if you haven’t!): http://tinyurl.com/kclgtasurvey

We have asked the College Education Commitee to share the proposed GTA policy document with us. So far, we’ve only been allowed to look at it, but not have a digital or real copy (nope, we don’t understand either). We will circulate a copy for comments as soon as we can.

Help us keep the pressure up

Email the Vice Principal, nicola.phillips@kcl.ac.uk, the head of Doctoral Studies, Nigel.Eady@kcl.ac.uk, and principal@kcl.ac.uk to urge them to work with GTAs closely, share the draft policy with us, and to reiterate the demands of the campaign (you could just link them to our press release http://roarnews.co.uk/?p=26714). BCC our email address (kclfairpayforgtas [at] gmail.com) in too so we get some idea of how many people are emailing!

Keep circulating the petition to PG and UG students. 152 signatures and counting! Let’s make it 300! https://www.kclsu.org/representingyou/campaigns/ourcampaigns/fairpaygtas/

Keep circulating the surveys! It’s really important we get as many responses as possible. 50 respondents so far… can we make it to 100? http://tinyurl.com/kclgtasurvey

Give us a tweet of support! Find us @KingsGTAs.

Fair Pay for GTAs

Campaign update 23/11/18

**Emergency Picket – Institute of Psychiatry, Wednesday 28th November, 1:30-2pm**

Why?

Nigel Eady, administrative director of the Centre for Doctoral Studies is submitting a plan for approval for GTA pay and training to the College Education Committee next Wednesday. We haven’t been able to get a copy of the document but have been told it has big implications for training, pay, and working conditions and reveals how KCL views GTA work. It may very well contain good stuff. But we think that GTAs should have been consulted. The College promised the Fair Pay for GTAs campaign back in 2016 to work more closely with GTA reps, but the College hasn’t even bothered to recruit any this year.

Action

1. We need as many people as possible to get to the Institute of Psychiatry, Camberwell, IoPPN Boardroom, Denmark Hill Main Campus, for 1:30pm on Wednesday 28th, to insist to those attending the meeting to withdraw the paper or vote the proposal down, and to consult with GTAs before decisions are made. The Committee meet at 2pm, so we want to catch them as they arrive.

Meet at the IoPPN at 1:30pm, or catch the bus with us at 12:30 from outside the Strand campus. We’ll bring some banners.

2. Send an email to the committee members explaining why you think the paper should be withdrawn until GTAs are consulted properly. People to copy in are: Nigel Eady; Nicola Phillips; Debbie McCarthy; the principal Ed Byrne; doctoralstudies@kcl.ac.uk; and KCLSU officers, vpp@kclsu.org; president@kclsu.org; vpeas@kclsu.org. You might want to refer them to info in the recent Roar article we put together: http://roarnews.co.uk/?p=26714

Please email us kclfairpayforgtas [at] gmail.com to let us know if you can make it to the picket, whether you can meet us at the IoPPN or you want to travel together from the Strand. Let us know if you’ve sent an email to the Committee members, too!

@KingsGTAs