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 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


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s