Following a steady drip of complaints to the SU in recent years, the Postgraduate Committee have this year steered me to focus my efforts on launching research into the experience of our PhD Associate Tutors (ATs). We already knew some of the issues that our ATs face and had brought them to the University’s attention, but in light of little change since then, it seemed a full review was needed. Following the publication of that review, I’d like to share our findings with you as well as our plans for the future (the full report can be found here).
Why is it so important to support our ATs?
In modern HE the majority of academics are undervalued, living between temporary contracts with reduced employment rights. If we don’t deal with the issue at PhD level, we are planting the seed for poor workers’ rights throughout the entire academic career of our students. You can tell a lot about an institution by how they treat people at the ‘bottom’ of the chain, and I don’t believe that UEA is doing enough to support the future development of our ATs.
We need to be fighting for diversity in our academic staff, and fighting the white and male dominance in academia. The concerning lack of open and transparent advertising of teaching opportunities for PhD students means no equality and diversity checks, which are vital to any institution’s management. In systems where teaching opportunities are based on your relationship with your supervisor, or who you know in the faculty, unconscious bias means certain students will be shut out of academia.
we are concerned that there will be detrimental impacts on the mental health of our ATs
ATs teach our undergraduates and mark their work. They want to provide the best possible teaching, but this isn’t possible if they are not provided with proper conditions and employment rights. With student numbers increasing, putting strain on an already inadequate training and support system, we are concerned that there will be detrimental impacts on the mental health of our ATs, something which is already a major concern within the postgraduate community.
Recruitment and selection
Even in the initial stages of recruitment, our research showed a distinct lack of standardisation in application processes for prospective ATs. 58% of students were notified about positions via email, but others heard by word of mouth or through their supervisors. Accessibility and encouragement to take up AT openings varied widely between students. With 77% believing there to be no formal application process, the scheme is largely biased in favour of those students approached directly by a member of staff.
one student told us that the ‘volatile work’ was unsuitable for those wishing to gain solid qualifications and experience.
Once selected for an AT role, a worrying 21% of students said that they received their contract either very close to or after the beginning of term. Despite strict guidelines in UEA’s policy on postgraduate student employment on laying out hours and pay, students told us that hours were often changeable and confusing. Newly-introduced fixed-hour contracts are often not adhered to, and are highly inflexible in periods of high workload such as marking. AT contracts are also issued on a temporary basis – one student told us that the ‘volatile work’ was unsuitable for those wishing to gain solid qualifications and experience.
Our overall recommendations for the recruitment and selection process of ATs are heavily focused upon the need for a centralised process and the development of a structured application process to be used by all schools recruiting ATs. All ATs must receive a contract at least 2 weeks prior to their start date.
Training and preparation
Although the percentage of people having not received training has dropped by 8% since 2013, 21% of respondents are still receiving no training for their role, with a further 17% saying that they were trained after having started work. The highest percentage by school was DEV, with 36% receiving either ‘on the job’ training or none at all.
For those who did receive training, requirements and experiences were varied. Some were offered PPD or CSED courses but a lot of these were brief and some respondents did not feel adequately informed regarding marking standards or technique. Some students were not required to attend training at all due to having previous teaching experience, which could result in a lack of consistency in terms of both teaching and marking. Training was also inconsistent, with neither of the aforementioned courses being mandatory and often being given too formally to be classed by ATs as effective training.
From our report, we have recommended that UEA create a mandatory training provision for all ATs, with those having prior experience helping to train and support others in their school, and that each school considers running specialised training.
Recognition and support
During our research project, we spoke to ATs about the remuneration that they receive for extra hours spent marking students’ work, and found a correlation between those tutors having received a contract and those who were remunerated for time spent marking. Of those who were paid, only 3% had not received a contract, compared to 13% of those who were not. This figure was highest in the AMA and DEV schools, with 32% of ATs not being paid for additional time spent marking. One AMA respondent noted that some tutors are paid the same to mark scores of essays as those with only a handful.
Overall, there seemed to be a lot of confusion surrounding how much time ATs are expected to spend on preparation and marking, seeing as they are in many cases not paid for the work. One comment also highlighted the extremely informal nature of payment, saying that covering shifts between PPL tutors is often settled cash-in-hand.
Staff support for ATs is also unsatisfactory. Many tutors do not feel part of the community of staff in their school, despite the integral role they play in teaching. One student said that staff ‘ensure you feel well below them’ and others noted that they received no constructive feedback in their time as an AT. Supervisor support also varies. Those who were recommended for the job by their supervisor were likely to receive much more active support and feedback.
If you run an effective HR system and treat your workers well, you have nothing to fear of them knowing their rights
Finally, we looked at trade union support. According to UEA’s guidance document for Associate Tutors, all PhD students who teach should be made aware of their right to join a union, but this has not been adhered to. None of the participants we spoke to from CHE, AMA and DEV had been introduced to this right, despite UCU’s keenness for higher levels of AT involvement. UEA need to be bold enough to inform these students what their employment rights are. If you run an effective HR system and treat your workers well, you have nothing to fear of them knowing their rights.
We recommend that all AT contracts detail hours inclusive of expected time spent on preparation and marking, and that situations such as shift covering are also made clear in writing in in the tutor’s contract. Each school should have an induction period in which ATs are encouraged to integrate into the staff community, and supervisors must be made formally aware of their roles and responsibilities to ensure that students get the support they need. We also recommend that UEA investigate cases where ATs are relied on to fulfil teaching needs, and assess this with consideration for the planned increase in UG student numbers next year.
The full report has already been taken to the Student Experience Committee and a reply to our recommendations is being formulated. I sincerely hope that the University resource this issue properly, and show that they value everything that our PhD students do by responding to our research.
Editor’s note: this is an edited version of a blog originally published at uea.su, republished courtesy of Maddie Colledge.
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events. Please consider making a small contribution and fund a better media future.