Squeezed teaching assistants failed by KCL

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By Samuel Chadwick, Jonathan Lehrfeld and Alice Boon

Documents and testimonies shared with Roar reveal that graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) have fundamental grievances that have been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by senior staff and management. The campaign Fair Pay for GTAs (FP4GTA) argues that GTA strategy groups “selectively ignore” issues such as inadequate preparatory time, unrealistic marking requirements and low hourly pay as they are not paid for overtime. Some of the testimonies shared report not earning enough to cover their London living expenses.

Graduate Teaching Assistants are doctoral researchers who take up contracts to teach part-time on top of their PhDs. Every day at KCL, hundreds of them provide about 30% of teaching across the faculties (in some cases up to 70% for first-year modules). They also carry out other duties such as marking, preparing seminars, training, and unpaid admin, lecture attendance and office hours. The ‘Fair Pay for GTA’ (FP4GTA) campaign started in 2015, revamped in November 2018 and wrote a comment piece for Roar the following month.

Dr Anna Grimaldi, a GTA in the Department of International Development believes that she and other GTAs are considered invaluable to the university’s current system because they “require almost no investment, no support, and are highly profitable compared to permanent teaching staff”.

During two separate meetings of a GTA Liaison Group in February and July, two different KCL officials suggested GTAs go on strike. The campaign expressed “incredulity” at such a suggestion, adding that arranging a strike is not a realistic tactic due to the quick turnover of teaching assistants and the precarious part-time nature of the work.

KCL does engage – in seeming delaying tactics

The minutes from the July meeting reveal that KCL is looking at reforms to tweak payroll systems, but seems unable to go beyond that. When GTA activists raised the issue of payment for preparation time, an official categorised this as a “condition change” and later outlined that it would not be “appropriate” for the GTA Strategy Group to make single recommendations to senior management. In one exchange, a GTA activist argued that a full overhaul was not needed for changes to be made, but an official replied that serious proposals would require a “King’s-wide review” to be approved by “all senior levels”.

When paid prep time was raised, the response was that it is not appropriate to make single recommendations to senior management. Another GTA activist expressed frustration at what he called the GTA Strategy Group’s “lack of willingness to hear from GTAs directly about their experiences teaching across the university” and to “take seriously the unfeasible working conditions of GTA staff”. The FP4GTA campaign says that such groups also “continue to selectively ignore other fundamental concerns regarding preparation time and marking coming out of [the FP4GTA] survey”.

Blindspot?

The GTA Strategy Group’s briefing note to the Senior Management Team further indicates that KCL financial strategy prevents substantive engagement over fundamental GTA grievances. The 4-page briefing from August 2019 stresses that recommendations are “in a manner which would be compatible with the progress of the wider strategic review”. It does mention bettering training for GTAs, creating ‘GTA Leads’. But it omits key grievances of hourly pay, preparation ratios, and marking rates.

“It makes you feel devalued as a person and as a worker.”

GTAs declared a passion for their subject and belief in teaching, but are left overstretched and underpaid for the work they end up doing. One GTA remarked they admire the FP4GTA campaign as “There is an underlying feeling of resentment. People grumble about it but no one’s speaking up because you rely on staff [e.g. for references] and you don’t want to create an awkward relationship”. They continued that senior staff members, on permanent, secure contracts, seem unwilling or unable to engage with this. “They are purportedly allies, and say ‘oh the situation is terrible’ but what are they doing about it?” They said that admin and lecture attendance is not factored in by their contract. They acknowledge that departments don’t write the contracts, but add that “Exploitation happens when people turn a blind eye to it. There’s a lack of collective responsibility”. 

According to another source, in the English department, King’s says GTAs “just simply shouldn’t spend more time reading or marking” and that “we should just pass on students who take up a lot of time onto other colleagues [who are] already overworked”. She witnessed “divisive tactics” for example in meetings where central management “have presented reps with a choice between better pay for GTAs, bringing cleaners in house and nice students’ union facilities”.

Small steps 

Chiara Libiseller welcomes that the War Studies department now provides paid training that is “somewhat concerned with our thematic focus”. KCL seems to have improved GTA training since 2015, when Joe Attard, a GTA in film studies till recently, did four hours’ unpaid training, which was a mandatory “laughable… crash course” alongside mathematicians and dental students with a Monty Python “Spanish lesson” sketch used as an example of bad teaching. 

Attard’s pay “wasn’t enough to cover my [London] rent and living expenses” so took on yet another part-time job. He stressed the “complete mismatch between our working hours on paper and the reality”. He supports the campaign because GTAs “have no voice but their collective voice. No strength but their collective strength.” He said that until the GTAs “started to get organised and stood up” for themselves, KCL “threatened and attempted to intimidate” them. KCL ignored the campaign “until we threatened to strike, which recaptured their attention”. 

The GTA source in the English department says training could still improve, especially “specific mental health or learning needs training… we really want to help our students but often just don’t feel equipped with the know-how to do so” and so would wish to receive relevant mental health and learning needs training. Another GTA was so overworked that she said she “could barely do any Ph.D. work” whilst teaching.

Campaign reveals survey testimonies

In May this year, the FP4GTA campaign shared with senior management 205 testimonies from a survey they ran between November 2018 and February 2019. Whilst GTAs in the “supportive” psychology department seemed satisfied and praised improvements, the majority elsewhere were dissatisfied. Interestingly, respondents were more likely to criticise the faculty and university than their department. Common themes were “wholly inadequate” prep time, “unrealistic” and “appalling” marking requirements, having to work overtime unpaid, and repeated calls for hourly pay to be raised. Most reported being overworking, thus earning less than the minimum £14.52 per hour worked, but others reported providing teaching below the level they wanted as they could not afford to work overtime.

“It is impossible,” one wrote, “to even complete much of the set reading in that time, let alone plan a seminar.” Many GTAs report needing to spend considerably more time preparing than the 2 hours per hour taught that KCL pays them for, pushing their average pay down, whilst others said the quality of teaching suffers. The dossier is littered with anecdotes of disappointment and exasperation. One GTA was threatened with a pay cut for attending a doctor’s appointment at the same time as a meeting. A few spoke of contracts being issued at short notice, or teaching materials the evening before.

Trade union offers solidarity 

Dr. Jane Elliott, University and College Union rep for the English Dept and the Virginia Woolf Building site said, “GTAs play a key role across the college, contributing significantly to teaching, marking and pastoral support, particularly for first-year undergraduates. While senior management is clearly aware of GTAs’ importance, and see them as a key part in the university’s expansion plans, this is not reflected in GTA pay, or in the amount of time allocated for teaching preparation. The Fair Pay for GTAs campaign is at the forefront of efforts to ensure that GTAs’ importance to the college is reflected in their pay, and has UCU’s full support.”

KCL pays around 62% of income on staff salaries (higher than the national average), with the wages and salaries of 6,918 staff amounting to some £359 million in 2017-18. GTA pay is at an hourly rate which is calculated annually. The KCL website states that “no doctoral student should have more than three hours of GTA class work per week during the term”.

Right of reply

A KCL spokesperson said, “We recognise the importance of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) and value them as part of King’s education and research community. Six months ago we established a strategy group, including GTAs and student representatives from King’s Doctoral Students Association and KCLSU, to carry out a thorough review. We are taking steps to ensure GTAs receive payment for attending mandatory training and the group will continue work to ensure a standardised and consistent approach in the future on pay, expectations and working practices.” One senior KCL employee involved in GTA strategy described this statement as one “on behalf of the university which we would all ascribe to”, and did not wish to comment any further than that.

What happens next?

We don’t know. The FP4GTA campaign report pessimism, but add that they will continue lobbying for improved contracts on behalf of other GTAs. They continue their petition at tinyurl.com/SupportKCLGTAs. The GTA Strategy Group meets again in early December and will send their next recommendations to KCL’s Senior Management Team and Revenue and Expenditure Review Committee in the New Year, for implementation from September 2020.

Are you affected by these issues? Roar is still interested and wants to hear from you: news@roarnews.co.uk

How much do they earn?

London Living Wage  £10.55/hour
Graduate Teaching Assistant £15-18 per allocated hour, but on average sometimes around or below minimum wage
Private tutor £20/hour

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