Victory for King’s College London GTAs (but the fight isn’t over yet…)

What has been won and what remains to be done? In our final post of 2015/6, Fair Pay for GTAs takes stock of our achievements thus far and outlines plans for the future.

The academic year is winding down and those Graduate Teaching Assistants who’ve signed up to teach again in the new term will notice some improvements to their contracts! These significant gains were made possible by the courage and dedication of all those who contributed to our campaign.

From the organisers to the GTAs and students who signed our petitions to the union reps who fought alongside us, each and every one of you deserves a well-earned pat on the back.

First thing’s first: what exactly have we managed to win for GTAs in 2016/7 and how does it compare to where we started/what we asked for?

1) Essay marking

  • 2015/6: 5,000 words per-hour
  • What we asked for: 2,000 words per-hour
  • What we got: 4,000 words per hour (20% pay increase)

The improved pay structure for essay marking – ratified by the Senior Leadership/Executive Teams and the Resources and Expenditure Review Committee – is our biggest win in sheer cash terms. Considering this change applies to all essay-based subjects (and thus affects the majority of GTAs across the College), it represents an investment in teaching on the order of £350,000.

While this is an exciting result, for which we are justly proud, the new deal is a bit more complicated than it first appears…

The arbitrary 5,000-word per hour figure from last year didn’t come close to the actual amount of time it takes to mark essays to any reasonable standard. We estimated that GTAs working ‘to contract’ at 5,000 words per-hour would, on average, have between 10 and 20 minutes to mark a 1,500-word assignment.

Calculating a precise, fair ‘average’ for essay marking time is tricky. Some GTAs are quicker than others and essays are of variable standard, with some requiring more detailed feedback.

While we accept the difficulty of standardising pay structures for marking across a range of subjects, our recommendation of 2,000 words per-hour (unlike the original 5,000 word per-hour) was not sucked out of anybody’s thumb. It is a sober and reasonable figure that we feel reflects the time we put into marking – at least if we wish to do a decent job.

4,000 words per-hour was first offered following a meeting between campaign representatives and the Arts and Sciences Senior Executive Team (ASSET) – the first and only proper ‘negotiation’ meeting to which we have been invited. Subsequently, we told ASSET that the College should at the very least consider meeting us in the middle at 3,000 words per-hour as a show of good faith. This figure would also be in line with the National Union of Journalists’ recommended rate for proof-reading, one of the closest ‘paid-per-word’ analogues to essay marking.

For now, the 4,000 words-per hour figure stands and while far from what we asked for, a 20% pay increase is not insubstantial.

2) Number of weekly working hours

  • 2015/6: GTAs’ working week capped at 6 hours in total
  • What we asked for: the removal of this cap
  • What we got: cap removed

It was a long time coming but we have finally convinced King’s to accept reality.

The six-hour weekly cap on GTA work, which was supposed to encompass everything from marking to prep to contact time, was a complete fantasy. The logic was to ensure that GTAs were not putting their teaching duties before their own research: a reasonable concern that this imaginary cap did absolutely nothing to ameliorate.

The College has now changed this stipulation so that it only applies to contact time between GTAs and students (seminars, office hours and the like). In effect, the cap has been binned.

3) Preparation time

  • 2015/6: one hour of preparation time per week
  • What we asked for: 4:1 ratio between paid prep and teaching hours
  • What we got: 2:1 ratio between paid prep and teaching hours (excepting multiple seminars on the same module)

That GTAs were expected to perform all their lesson preparation in a single hour per week, including for subjects where weekly reading can be entire novels, was a scandal. Frankly, the new deal is still a scandal – I struggle to imagine even the swiftest of skim-readers being able to polish off Ulysses and plan a lesson on it in a couple of hours.

As with marking, the variety of demands on GTAs in different departments makes it difficult to calculate a standardised pay scale for prep. Our 4:1 recommendation was intended as a fair medium, accepting that for some GTAs it would be a generous provision and others less so.

While the 2:1 ratio represents a rough doubling of paid prep time for GTAs in most departments, the College should have climbed down to at least a 3:1 compromise.

4) Training and development

  • 2015/6: one-day, unpaid, mandatory ‘Preparing to Teach’ training day and PGHAPHE discontinued
  • What we asked for: improved, bespoke training on a paid basis (if mandatory) and the restoration of PGCAPHE or a qualification of equal value
  • What we got: paid, improved departmental inductions and training with a specific focus on best practice for marking and teaching, limited reintroduction of PGCAPHE (now fully discontinued).

In some respects, training and career development have formed an even sorer point of contention than pay, given many of our concerns about College’s attitude towards casual staff crystallise around these issues.

When we initially reached out to GTAs to discuss their experiences of work, a recurring theme was that standing in front of a room full of undergraduates, expected to provide them with an education, having received virtually no pedagogic instruction, made student teachers feel ill-equipped to perform their duties.

We have already commented extensively on KLI’s ‘Preparing to Teach’ training day in previous posts, so I shan’t recount its inadequacies in detail. Suffice it to say that cramming English teachers alongside dentists in a single classroom for a couple of hours to discuss best teaching practice in the most general possible terms isn’t an adequate provision.

The removal (with little explanation) of the PGCAPHE qualification – a narrow but essential bridge to meaningful employment in the increasingly-overcrowded HE sector – was another blow to GTAs’ morale. PGCAPHE was far from perfect, but as a two-year teaching course delving into pedagogic theory (and with a recognised qualification at the end), it at least felt like a meaningful addition to our CVs. Certainly more than KLI’s ‘Preparing to Teach diploma,’ which has spent the past year languishing in my drawer.

Before Christmas, under pressure from our campaign, King’s offered to reintroduce the PGCAPHE on a first-come-first-served basis to 20 applicants from the faculty of Arts and Humanities. This gesture felt like an afterthought, indicative of an institution less interested in nurturing its postgraduate staff than with shutting them up.

It also bares mentioning that, following its college-wide ‘review of the GTAs experience’ last year (in which no GTAs were actually asked about their experiences), King’s took to describing GTAs as ‘apprentices.’ The following definition was put before us in a focus group with College representatives before Christmas:

“GTAs are current PhD students who undertake paid undergraduate teaching work (as well as, in exceptional circumstances, PGT students). The opportunity to undertake this work is provided primarily in order that the GTA may acquire experience of teaching and related duties to better equip them for a possible academic career. Being a GTA is therefore to be regarded as an apprenticeship and is not regarded as the means for PGR students to support themselves while undertaking their PhDs [my emphasis]. The provision of GTA work should never be at the possible expense of the students completing their doctorate.”

While there is no statutory definition of what is meant by a contract of apprenticeship, the OED deems and apprentice to be “one who is bound by legal agreement to serve an employer for a period of years, with a view to learn some handicraft, trade etc., in which the employer is reciprocally bound to instruct him or her.”

Given that the only mandatory training that GTAs are expected to undertake is Preparing to Teach which to this point we have been expected to attend for free, it is clear that the ‘apprentice’ moniker is simply an excuse for our exploitative pay conditions (remember, all forms of employment involve a degree of personal and professional development, GTA work is nothing special in this regard).

Following our negotiations with the College, GTAs starting in 2016/7 will receive payment for Preparing to Teach (which remains mandatory) as well as for induction days. Student teachers will also receive additional, remunerated instruction at a departmental level on best practice for marking and teaching.

5) Representation

  • 2015/6: departmental PhD reps and a general PGR representative based in the Graduate School. No specific representation for GTAs
  • What we asked for: provisions for GTAs to sit in on senior management meetings so that their concerns can be heard by the College
  • 2016/7: two elected GTA reps will sit on the King’s Post-Doctoral Forum, being invited to senior management meetings where issues pertinent to GTAs are under discussion

The absence of a GTA voice at the level of senior management expressed a general issue with governance, one that also affects full-time staff and that still stands.

The ‘top-down’ command structure by which decisions are made and carried out (resulting in notable debacles like the failed ‘rebrand’ in 2015 and the present furore over Bush House) was what necessitated this campaign in the first place.

At the beginning of next term, GTAs will elect amongst themselves two representatives to a doctoral students’ forum, established under the KCLSU’s democratic restructuring. This independent body will serve as a medium between senior management and GTAs and its elected representatives will be invited to attend staff meetings where ‘GTA issues’ are under discussion.

Finally, we will have a say in the conditions of our own employment.

Caveats aside, these are some major victories. However, there is still a great deal to be done. What remains for us to fight for next year?

1) A fairer compromise on pay and prep

Following ASSET’s provisional offer of 4,000 words per hour pay for marking and a 2:1 ratio for paid preparation to teaching, Ben Hunt of the KCLSU attempted to broker a further compromise of 3,000 words per-hour and a 3:1 ratio respectively. As a show of good faith, we offered to wind up our campaign should these provisions be met and continue negotiations exclusively via the KDSF, rather than continuing with direct action tactics.

Despite all our efforts, including a detailed paper submitted by Ben to RERC proposing a further climb-down, College opted to reject this very reasonable compromise. In the partial minutes forwarded to Ben and members of the campaign, “financial constraints” were cited as the reason for this, although the College accepted there was a “problem” with the proposed pay structure and pledged to review marking and preparation pay again prior to 2017/8.

As far as ‘financial constraints’ are concerned, consider the following…

  • King’s recently made the news for losing a £250,000, three-year legal battle to prevent the disclosure of the job titles and salaries of staff earning over £100,000 a year. At a tribunal, a representative of the College argued that to do so would result in “awkward conversations” and negatively impact “team dynamics.”
  • The procurement of Bush House – a grade II listed building – has set the College back tens of millions. Nabbing prestigious real estate has been a priority for HE institutions of late, who reason that these fancy digs attract more students (particularly lucrative internationals). Unfortunately, when it was surveyed, it transpired that Bush House is “unsuitable for academic use.”
  • The cost of failing to rebrand our university ‘King’s London’ last year, cost the College £100,000.
  • The UCU estimates that a £1.9bn surplus exists in the HE sector. Of course, it is impossible to calculate what percentage of that is sloshing around in the King’s coffers, because there is no transparency over how and why King’s spends the cash it rakes in from the exorbitant fees it charges students.

If College truly does lack the funds to offer GTAs a better deal, that is a result of its own distorted priorities. Rather than reinvesting student fees in teaching, the university sees fit to invest in its ‘reputation’ with showy procurements and daft rebranding initiatives, all while inflating the salaries of senior staff. The recent two-day general UCU strike was partly inspired by the fact that, in the past seven years, the salaries of university management have increased by 15 per cent on average, while those of frontline staff have fallen by 14.5 per cent.

The current (and, under capitalism, expected) trend towards marketization that sees students reduced to exploitable assets and universities to profit-driven business enterprises is concomitant with the casualization of the HE and FE workforce. Chasing after more students out of whom to wring fees, coupled with an unwillingness by the bosses to hire more full-time staff, necessitates more casualised staff, whom in turn universities seek to pay as little as they can get away with. This logic of ‘teach as many as possible at minimum cost’ creates a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of marketization and casualization that could be the death of our sector.

The local battle for a fairer compromise at King’s is thus indicative of a wider struggle in which both full-time and casual staff are inevitably involved. Given the university’s unwillingness to climb down, we have no intention of shuttering this independent campaign group next year and will keep all tactics on the table.

2) Paid lecture attendance for all departments

Some departments already remunerate GTAs for lecture attendance and we have yet to hear an adequate explanation from the College as to why this is not a recommendation across all faculties. It is a reasonable expectation that GTAs should attend lectures in order to teach module material but they should not have to do so for free.

3) An end to outsourcing

GTA work should be brought entirely in-house as a matter of simple principle against the increasing casualisation of the higher education workforce. As a UCU exec, I find it troublesome that casual teachers employed via direct temping are not eligible for the workplace protection that membership within our union affords King’s staff.

Furthermore, on a purely administrative front, being paid via direct temping can make simple matters (such as chasing up an incorrect tax code or if the university fails to submit documentation on time) into an unnecessary hassle, as direct temping will pursue the employee in the event of irregularities, resulting in more work for them. For this reason, some departments (including Geography) have already discontinued this practice.

4) Demonstrator pay

We see no compelling reason that demonstrator pay shouldn’t be set at the same rate as teaching across Arts and Sciences. ASSET has even acknowledged in some of our correspondences with us that demonstrator tasks are comparable to leading seminars. They have suggested agreeing variances in rates according to “the level of pedagogic independence required”, which seems an unnecessarily awkward metric.

5) Addressing the situation of all casual staff

GTAs are not the only causalised staff members at King’s. The reality of the academic job market for most post-doctorates is up to a decade of piecemeal work, fixed-term contracts and minimal job security. This kind of work is also extremely transitory, with teaching fellows and hourly-paid lecturers forced to migrate all over the country (and beyond) at yearly, six-month and even three-month intervals in pursuit of employment.

In the next academic year, we will endeavour to reach out to other casual staff members at King’s, learn more about their working conditions and determine how best to fight for their interests.

6) Reaching outside of Arts and Sciences

The campaign this year has been mostly based in Arts and Sciences. There are practical explanations for this: the bulk of GTA labour is concentrated in Arts & Hums and the campaign began in Arts & Hums departments, meaning this was where our initial building took place.

The nature of our victories (particularly on essay marking) are weighted towards GTAs from the Humanities. However, we have been contacted by GTAs from a number of other faculties with horror stories about their working conditions. Evidently, we need to redouble our efforts to make this campaign as broad and encompassing as possible in 2016/7.

7) The return of PGCAPHE (or something similar)

This issue has already been covered at length in previous blog posts, but needless to say the removal of PGCAPHE significantly weakens the employment prospects of King’s postgraduates. The university must fill this void with, if not PGCAPHE, then a comparable, accredited teaching qualification so that we can chalk up something concrete on our CVs.

8) Building beyond King’s!

The exploitative conditions faced by GTAs at King’s are not isolated. Across the country, casual staff endure similar or worse treatment. We should look for ways of extending logistical support to GTAs at other universities, possibly via FACE, the UCU (which has just launched a massive anti-casualization drive) or both!

If our broader goals are to be won, we need to learn from successes of the past year. What has been most effective about our approach?

1) Assertive, direct action campaigning

Any successful campaign will utilise multiple angles of attack. While we have largely made use of ‘above-the-board’ methods, we were only invited to formal negotiations after we threatened a marking boycott and with the urging of the UCU and KCLSU. Our attempts to facilitate a proper discussion with management were also frustrated by apparently-deliberate attempts to misrepresent the dispute and keep key people out of the loop.

The fact is that under capitalism, workers (and casuals in particular) will only win what they demand, but demands mean nothing without the threat of direct action behind them. This encompasses tactics from the humble petition, to demonstrations, all the way up to strikes and boycotts. At present, 67 per cent of the academic work force in Britain is employed on a casual basis; at King’s, casual staff cover over half the teaching hours on some undergraduate courses.

The truth is that universities cannot do without us, making collective action by casuals – particularly with solidarity from full-time staff and students – extremely impactful. So far, we have not needed to take the final step of an all-out strike, but the intransigence of the College means we will keep this option on the table next year. The lesson going forward is that advancements can be won, but only if we are willing to be bold.

2) Cross-union support

Part of the reason that GTAs are in such a vulnerable position is that we fall in the space between students and staff. This campaign would not have been nearly as effective without a united front from the UCU and the student’s union, both of whom passed motions calling on College to acquiesce to our demands. A further motion of solidarity from Unison also lent us the backing of administrative and support staff. In effect, the largest voices of collective bargaining for all three strands of King’s employees were raised in our support.

It was joint pressure from the UCU and KCLSU that ultimately secured our first proper negotiation meeting with ASSET, while the resources at their command proved invaluable in spreading the word about our campaign. Going forward, it is imperative that we maintain this cross-union solidarity in fighting for a fairer deal for casuals at King’s. I am writing this blog post at the UCU national congress in Liverpool, where I intend to ‘talk up’ our campaign and speak to national organisers about how to build on our success.

At a local level, I am in talks with both the UCU and the KCLSU about how to further student-staff opposition to casualization and marketization. Believe me, the full-time lecturers are no happier about the situation at King’s than we are.

3) Getting the students on-side

If the bosses’ focus on the NSS is anything to go by, King’s is more concerned than ever with ‘student satisfaction.’ The advantage that we have over senior management in this regard is that the students know who we are. We provide their education. We offer them pastoral support. We track down obscure Bazin articles in the early hours before an exam. In short, we (by and large) have their trust.

It is to the advantage of the College that most students don’t even really understand the difference between a full-time academic and a GTA. In my experience, I have found that most are appalled at the exploitation we face when it is explained to them. They are especially perturbed to discover the terms under which we are expected to mark their essays and exams!

Communication with the student body is critical to our campaigning. The support of the student union is, of course, invaluable, but it is always worth speaking openly and honestly with our students about our working conditions and why our campaign group exists. Remember, students also suffer under marketization – just look at Evelyn Welch’s absurd, mandatory £1,000 deposit for MA applicants!

4) Reputational damage

Nothing rattles the King’s cage quite like seeing our university’s name (justly) dragged through the mud. When our survey (which found that 96% of GTAs at the college work overtime for free) was picked up by Times Higher Education and Roar, the College quickly promised a ‘review of the GTA experience’. This review (laughable as it was) proved to be our foot in the door. Publically linking GTA pay to the BME attainment gap – an especially sore point for the College – also paid dividends. In the next academic year, we must keep up this kind of media pressure. After all, the truth hurts!

5) Getting unionised and getting involved!

A united message is always preferable to a thousand independent voices. GTA pay conditions represent a single battle in a much wider fightback against marketization, casualization and exploitation that permeates King’s but goes beyond its walls. If you haven’t already, sign up to your local UCU branch and stand in solidarity with academic staff across the College.

We keep up the regular meetings next year. If you aren’t presently receiving our circulars, please get in touch at joseph.attard@kcl.ac.uk and we’ll put you on our mailing list.

Onwards to 2016/7! Students and workers: unite and fight!

We’ve come a long way – further than many thought possible – but there are still battles to be won. We should be immensely proud of our achievements, but we can’t afford a second of complacency. Going into the new academic year we need to proceed as a disciplined, organised and assertive campaign group.

King’s has shown that it can afford a fairer deal for staff, but will only reinvest in teaching when we stand up and demand it. That’s the nature of being an exploited worker under capitalism, and the only antidote to exploitation is solidarity.

Best and thanks again for everyone’s hard graft,

Fair Pay for GTAs

Prepared to Teach?

Training for Graduate Teaching Assistants at King’s College London is ‘a shambles’

For many PhD candidates, embarking on a life in academia, teaching is one of the big draws of the profession. It is also a daunting prospect. Working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) is often the first teaching experience we undertake. We all take teaching seriously, and are committed to doing a good job, and to giving our students the best learning experience we can. PhD students tend to be people who care about education and have a commitment to university life. We have dedicated a lot of time, energy and money to the disciplines we work in and we want to give our students the opportunity to learn, ask questions, and to develop the same enthusiasm for the subject as we have ourselves.

One would hope that university management would feel similarly, and show their commitment to teaching by providing adequate, paid training for GTAs. Instead, they have withdrawn the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice in Higher Education (PGCAPHE), leaving King’s graduates significantly disadvantaged in the job market, as well as demonstrating the College’s shallow and bureaucratic approach to training.

The only mandatory training one must undertake before being a GTA at King’s College London is the Preparing to Teach course provided by the King’s Learning Institute. This is a one-day course taken by prospective Graduate Teaching Assistants from all schools. It is not subject specific so, for example, GTAs who teach discussion-based History seminars will receive identical training to those who work as demonstrators in a lab.

We asked a selection of GTAs what they thought of the training at King’s. The feedback were overwhelmingly negative. Here are a few of the responses:

‘My GTA training consisted of the bog-standard Preparing to Teach course. Over four hours we had a handful of very earnest academics giving short lectures on good teaching practice, but the diversity of departments represented and the brevity of the event meant that everything was very vague. In fact, it was so slight and wishy-washy that I can’t remember any of what we were actually taught, all that sticks in my mind was when we were made to watch the ‘Spanish Lesson’ sketch of ‘Monty Python’ as an example of ‘bad practice.’ It was pretty dire. I can’t help thinking that it would make a great deal more sense for individual departments to tailor their own training.

When it came to teaching on my course, I was fortunate in that the course convenor was very clear in his instruction, but I still went out in front of my first class feeling like a complete fraud, totally unqualified to teach anybody. How can we be expected to teach to a high standard when we aren’t educated ourselves in essential areas like marking, feedback and student support? Preparing to Teach feels more like bureaucratic box-ticking than a genuine attempt to train us.’

 

‘The Preparing to Teach course was an utter shambles! The course was poorly thought through, oversubscribed and contained almost no practical advice on teaching. The provision to ensure equality and comfort for all in the classroom was particularly disappointing. I can’t believe the university are happy to send us into classes with such dismal examples of teaching practice, demonstrated by the King’s Learning Institute.’

 

‘Having taught in two different departments at King’s, I was struck by the complete lack of uniformity in how Arts and Humanities introduces its GTAs to the role. In Film Studies we are more or less expected to just get on with it, with almost no training whatsoever beyond the impossibly generalistic ‘Preparing to Teach’ class. When I taught in the English department a couple of years ago, however, all GTAs were given a two-day training session, which was far more tailored to helping those new to teaching to engage with their students. There were certainly things that could have been improved, but the fact that English (a far bigger department, admittedly) devoted this much time to training shows that there is (was? – I don’t know if they still do it) a commitment to helping GTAs provide the best experience possible for their students. In Film Studies, as I said, we are kind of left to our own devices, and I think this lack of uniformity in approach really needs to be addressed. I’m not suggesting that A&H wide intro classes would work, but I think there should be an expectation that each department provide a minimum amount of properly tailored training to each new GTA.’

 

‘The PGCAPHE issue epitomises a lot of the frustration around the discrepancy between the training/apprenticeship framing and the actual provision of such. I find it interesting that I would know nothing about the status of where we’re at with it were it not for other helpful GTAs pressing for info. Zero open communication about this possible intensive session, for instance.’

 

‘I must say that the English Department has been very helpful throughout. Though we were not paid for these sessions, we attended one afternoon of training about teaching delivery and another evening session on marking, all of which took place well before the semester and were well-organized and appropriate. This makes the failures of Preparing to Teach even more apparent. Though the KIL staff seemingly have good intentions, the delivery of this course was appalling. It was too full (30+), the attendees were from a range of departments, the tasks were inappropriate and almost entirely redundant. An indicator of how bad it was is perhaps the fact that the KIL staff were seemingly unable to implement their own advice. The slides were all too full and none of them were explained properly – particularly those relating to the replacement of the PGCAPH, which makes sense in hindsight – and they contained no practical advice. Even when posed questions about possible scenarios all of the answers were painfully esoteric, as though the staff were unsuccessfully trying out their teaching methods on us. Someone would ask a straightforward question and get a response along the lines of ‘see, now I would say that you have already answered the question yourself.’ Now that I’m thinking about it again, it was actually quite funny (more so than the Monty Python perhaps).’

 

‘I’d say that the Preparing to Teach session left me more nervous about teaching than I was before. If KCL’s official teacher training dept didn’t know how to properly cover the basics of teaching – i.e. managing disruptive classes, engaging quiet students, preparing for seminars – then it was quite clear that no-one was going to help me. Thankfully the course convener for my module arranged a meeting with me beforehand where we went through this, but if he hadn’t done this then I would have been completely unprepared as there was nothing organised by the CMCI department as a whole. I’d also add that the list of new modules has come out again, and despite what I pointed out in the focus groups there is no information that distinguishes CMCI modules as PGT rather than undergrad, no mention of the fact that this is co-taught, and nothing that says how the actual modules requiring GTAs are yet to be confirmed (and won’t be until the summer).’
‘Firstly, I think that we should be paid to undertake training as GTAs – that may well make the College reconsider the quality and duration of the training we are obliged to attend. The short training sessions provided by the English Department were very good, I thought, mainly because they aligned broader teaching concepts to actual practice. We were shown, and worked with, practical examples, and in one session, were given feedback on how we had assessed an essay. To someone who has never marked before, that was really helpful! More bespoke training before GTAs start to teach would be great – along the lines of observing a seminar session conducted by the module convenor, or by a current GTA. The centrally provided ‘Preparing To Teach’ course was, however, a terrible counterpoint to departmental training. It tried to homogenise the teaching skills required, which was of no use to anyone. Also, ironically for GTAs encouraged to teach undergraduates how to think critically, the ‘Preparing to Teach’ course refused to give us that opportunity. We were told, in sweeping, broad-brush terms, what we should do as teachers, and not a single question raised by us on how to deal with classroom challenges was answered. It was a complete and utter waste of time. I would like my day back, please.’

King’s College London Pull Postgraduate Teaching Qualification

The Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice in Higher Education (PGCAPHE) is a Higher Education teaching qualification, offered to PhD applicants at King’s College London (KCL) presumably designed with several purposes in mind: to develop and support the teaching undertaken by PhD students as Graduate Teaching Assistants; to give some formal pedagogical instruction to PhD students (who are responsible for significant amounts of KCL’s teaching); and to give PhD graduates a better standing in a crowded job market.

According to the King’s College London website:

“The Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice in Higher Education (PGCAPHE or PGCAP) is a first qualification in academic practice for probationary academic staff. It is increasingly recognised that individuals responsible for the student learning experience in universities in the UK should have access to a teaching qualification and/or Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). The PGCAPHE provides a route to both a qualification in higher education academic practice and recognition as a Fellow of the HEA.”

Despite the offer of the PGCAP remaining on the King’s website until late 2015,

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From the website.

students who emailed to enquire about taking the qualification received no reply. When this issue was raised at and Arts and Humanities Graduate Teaching Assistant Induction in September 2015, PhD students were informed that the qualification had been withdrawn. The offer remained on the website but the College’s position, communicated via faculty members rather than the King’s Learning Institute or the Graduate School, was that the PGCAP could not be offered to the current cohort of PhD students, despite it being offered at the time of application.

The reasons the College gave for the withdrawal were twofold:

“a) the PGCAP is too resource intensive to be the mechanism by which we offer support for teaching to the hundreds of GTAs across the College and b) the HEA has reiterated to us that Associate Fellowship is the appropriate category for GTAs [Graduate Teaching Assistants] given the small teaching loads they tend to have.”

The ‘resource intensiveness’ of the PGCAP is of no consequence  to PhD students who were promised the right to apply for the qualification and who are, of course, keenly aware of how little regard the college gives  to teaching, given GTAs’ exploitative rates of pay.

The vague description of GTAs’ ‘small teaching load’ overlooks the fact that, as a cross-section of the workforce, casual teaching staff cover more than 50% of the teaching hours on some courses. Further, it is presumably the College that determines the teaching loads carried out by PhD students. At present, it is university policy that PhD students teach for no more than 6 hours per week (though, of course, teaching takes up considerably more hours, unpaid, than this permits ). This policy was already in place when the PGCAP was offered to, and completed by, GTAs enrolled on the programme between 2013 and 2015.

After many meetings, emails, and complaints, the university made a small (and wholly inadequate) concession regarding PGCAP. 25 spaces for the qualification have been opened up to current Arts and Humanities GTAs, with an application deadline of the 22nd February. PhD students who will not be teaching in the next academic year (that is to say, GTAs who were offered the PGCAP in the first place) must pay £500 per module to complete the second year of the course.

From September 2016 onwards the PGCAP will not be available and instead GTAs will have to make do with the  so-called ‘TRaK scheme’, which provides aspiring academics with membership to the Higher Education Academy (essentially a decoration for their CVs) but doesn’t teach them any pedagogic skills.

The limited and unfair basis of the offer reveal a general contempt for PhD students and the essential work that casual teaching staff perform. Following more questions and complaints, the college clarified that they would accept applications on a first-come-first served basis, but, despite our protestations,  have retained the requirement that completion of the course depends on being a GTA for both years. Further, the total lack of transparency demonstrates that the College feel no obligation to be accountable to PhD students, despite the central role we play in university life, the extortionate fees we pay, and the numerous unpaid teaching hours we work.

There are many questions to be answered. Why are there only 25 spaces? Can the college only afford to properly train 25 PhD students? If so, why does it accept hundreds of PhD students and employ so many of us as GTAs? This debacle makes plain that King’s does not value its student teachers, has no interest in preparing them to teach or for equipping them for a future in academia.

 

King’s GTAs call for an end to exploitative working conditions

Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) today issue a report detailing the exploitative working conditions they face at King’s College London (KCL). The report collates the responses to an online survey of over 400 graduate teaching assistants and PhD students at KCL in February 2015. The results present a damning picture of exploitation within the university, with 96% of GTAs working more than their contracted hours to perform their teaching duties (1). GTAs are now launching a campaign to demand fair pay for every hour worked.

Preparation and marking are the worst areas for GTAs working unpaid overtime. When preparing for classes, 82% of GTAs work over their contracted hours to get the work done. When marking, 61% of GTAs work over their contracted hours to finish marking students’ work on time.

39% of GTAs feel that the amount of hours that they are contracted to work affects the quality of their marking, and 39% feel that it affects the quality of the feedback they can give to each student.

One GTA commented: ‘My students cannot receive the standard of teaching or feedback that they expect or deserve, or that the university promises them, unless I consistently and persistently work extra hours for free.’

Another GTA stated: ‘“I can barely check if [their] calculations and results are correct.”

In the National Student Survey, KCL students consistently cite inadequate feedback as a source of dissatisfaction. KCL student newspaper, Roar, reported that ‘King’s are conning thousands of undergraduates by forcing teaching assistants to work at impossible speeds in “nightmarish” conditions – leading to “unfair” essay-marking and botched seminars.’ (2)

Similar surveys of GTA conditions have been undertaken at various academic institutions, including Queen Mary University, University College London, and Warwick. From these investigations, a clear trend emerges: GTAs are used as a source of cheap labour, undertaking core teaching tasks for a fraction of the cost of full time academic staff, at the same time as student fees have risen to over £9000 pounds per year. (3)

This campaign is taking place alongside a national campaign to improve pay and conditions for part time teaching staff, Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE), which held a the national conference at SOAS in February 2015. The conference brought casualised academic workers together, to discuss and organise for their fight for better labour conditions. (3)

  1. https://kclgtas.wordpress.com/
  2. http://roarnews.co.uk/wordpress/?p=17677
  3. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/fractional-teachers-to-press-for-better-deal-nationwide/2018464.article

For interviews, please call Sita Balani – 07783438458, or email kclgtas@gmail.com

 

From the GTAs…

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My students cannot receive the standard of teaching or feedback that they expect or deserve, or that the university promises them, unless I consistently and persistently work extra hours for free.

If I spend 90 minutes marking a bad paper then I end up getting paid £3.10 an hour. Since I can’t afford to work this way I compromise by spending less time, and offering less detailed feedback so the student suffers.

Furthermore, as there is not time assigned for marking training, if we have not done it before we have to teach ourselves and have no guidance for whether we are doing it correctly or not (apart from being told to ask a colleague, which would eat into their time and they might not be willing and neither party would be paid).

The papers need to be read quickly even to read them in double the time that is actually paid. The feedback needs to be generalised, to an extent, because there is no paid time to do them. Students are not getting the full benefits of learning in the course because of these issues.

If I were to stick to the hours I was contracted for, I would prepare perhaps a quarter of the required reading per week and mark a third of the essays with reduced feedback.

In case one sticks to the paid 6 hours obviously the quality of the teaching, the feedback to the students etc. breaks down to a low level. It cannot be of interest to KCL that that happens in case one really wants top teaching, top graduates and top reputation and everything for 9000 pounds per year.

GTAs [graduate teaching assistants] and other casualised labour are used to cut costs – perhaps reducing the quality of students’ experiences, or perhaps just exploiting the GTAs. We are too often not used as ‘extras’ but as actual lecturers, yet without the fair pay or levels of experience.

It’s not possible to mark a lab report in one hour. I have been doing this for 3 years now and got fairly fast and efficient with it and by now really do know my subject. But providing the student with helpful feedback while ensuring you mark the student fairly is not possible in one hour. I can barely check if his calculations and results are correct in the short time allocated for marking and feedback.

It’s a huge amount of work which is appallingly paid. Frankly, I treat GTA teaching as an act of charity.

It seems generally recognised that having the GTA attend the lecture they’ll be teaching on enables them to see things from the student’s perspective, address questions that come up, and generally do a better job of teaching the material. We’re only paid for one hour of preparation and doing each week’s reading takes at least two hours (on a good day) so many GTAs attend these lectures unpaid. Given it would result pretty quickly in a better student experience one thing that would straightforwardly help in my department at least would be paying the GTAs to attend these lectures. One hour preparation time is a joke in terms of how long it takes to teach material well. However, at least recognising this one form in which GTAs already go above and beyond and paying us for it would be welcome.

Lack of respect from professors, and admin staff. GTAs are treated like a free labour and are not respected

KCL GTA Report