“Dismissed as Collateral Damage”: The Case for Fair Pay for GTAs

“The College should start by taking our grievances seriously. When the issue of low pay for preparation was raised at the GTA induction meeting organised by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the vice-dean explained that the situation is better than it used to be. Another comment the vice-dean made was to suggest that nobody forces anyone to be a GTA” – GTA survey response

Op-Ed by the Fair Pay for GTAs Campaign

Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), are PhD students who teach
. The chances are, you’ve been taught by at least one during your time at King’s. If you’re in the English Department, for example, 60% of all first-year classes are taught by GTAs, with three first-year modules taught entirely by GTAs or hourly-paid staff.

Since 2014, GTAs have been campaigning for better pay and training. Despite what the College thinks, we know that ‘the situation’ isn’t ‘better than it used to be’.

Teaching can be great for PhD students. A lot of us want to become lecturers, and this experience is essential. No one is ‘forcing’ us to take on GTA work, but if we want a chance at an academic career, we need to do it.

PhD students are not a homogenous bunch (some of us get scholarships, some pay their own tuition fees), but many of us appreciate the extra income from teaching. Even if we think we’re being exploited, we love to teach, and it’s our profession. Sure, we could work in retail, or get a part-time office job. But these things don’t help our academic credentials.

But teaching can also cause a whole lot of stress. We surveyed GTAs in 2014, and overwhelmingly GTAs reported that they worked more hours than they were paid to do. We’ve got another survey running at the moment, and the responses have been the same.

The Campaign

Our main aims have always been:

Pay for preparation should be paid at a 4:1 ratio (prep-hours : teaching-hours).

Essays should be paid at a 2,000 words per-hour rate.

Paid, improved, department-based training for teaching and assessments, with the option to build to a King’s accredited qualification.

Alongside improving the working and learning conditions of PhD students, achieving these demands will raise the quality of undergraduate teaching, increase the diversity of teachers, and be a step toward stemming the tide of marketisation in Higher Ed.

Preparation

Back in 2016, the College conceded that a 1:1 ratio of preparation wasn’t good enough, and we’ve been left with a 2:1 ratio. To give some context to these numbers, this means a GTA gets paid for two hours prep for every different class they teach (so if you’re teaching more than one seminar group, you don’t get extra prep, which is fair enough). However, GTAs are expected to attend lectures, so that’s one hour of prep eaten up. That leaves one hour to read primary and secondary sources, plan the seminar, and design and print any materials.

“Last year I was paid for 2 hours a week of prep time, and probably spent at least 12 hours per week preparing. The alternative – doing a poor job and getting bad feedback – is really not an alternative at all, in terms of career progression and experience.” – GTA survey response

“I keep getting told to take less time [but] I will not make my students ‘pay’ by giving them an unprepared, poor lecture when they are already subjected to incredibly high fees.” – GTA survey response

Essay marking

Back in 2015, GTAs were expected to mark 6,000 words per hour. So that meant reading and marking up a 1,000 piece of work in 10 minutes. Since GTAs last lobbied for improved conditions, we now have to mark 4,000 words per hour, so a 1,000-word essay should now get 15 minutes of our time. And marking isn’t just assigning a number or grade: we want (and the College wants us) to give students personal, useful feedback. Most GTAs still report going massively over their allotted marking time, meaning we essentially end up working for below London Living wage.

“I consistently go over the time I am paid for when marking (4000 words per hour), and I often work double to what I am paid” – GTA survey response

Training

Until 2016, King’s offered a qualification called the “Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice in Higher Education”. The GTA campaign lobbied to increase this provision; the College’s response was to scrap it with the promise of something better. As of 2018, GTA training comes in the form of two hour-long “inductions”, one offered by the department, the other offered by the faculty. Outside of this, GTA’s have been told that they can use their own time to work toward an “Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy”, a self-reflection portfolio. Reflection is a poor substitute for instruction, especially for first-year GTAs.

“The lack of module-specific training and proper accreditation needs to be addressed, fast […] What’s more, this is kind of the *expectation*: ‘don’t worry, you’ll learn as you go!’ ‘your first seminar will be awful, but it’ll get better!’. It’s not good enough.” – GTA survey response

While PhD students are experts in their fields, and we develop classroom techniques and pedagogical theory ‘on the job’, many GTAs are new to teaching and would benefit from structured, ongoing training to complement their self-study. GTAs are professional teachers and need training at a professional level.

Students are Missing Out

Our survey is finding that some PhD students are choosing not to teach because other jobs provide living wages and/or professional skills development—which the GTA package lacks. This particularly affects part-time or self-funded PhD students and PhD students with careers outside of the academy. Offering fair pay for GTAs will open up teaching opportunities for these PhD students, so undergraduates won’t miss out on their expertise.

“The pay did not make it worth it. I have a 20-year career behind me in various policy, leadership and teaching roles, and the pay offered did not reflect what I could bring to the role. I couldn’t justify the time investment for such little money.” – GTA survey response

“As I am a part-time student, I also work part-time to cover living costs. I have to be very selective about the work I do because my time is stretched and the actual pay-per-hour I receive to do GTA work is not viable. So, I have chosen to look for other better paid work this year.” – GTA survey response

7th in the UK.

9th in Europe.

31st in the world.

This is how King’s markets itself to incoming students. But are the learning and working conditions that GTAs are reporting in our survey sound world-class?

Undergraduates get taught by overworked GTAs who have to choose between properly preparing for class, marking assessments thoroughly, or exploiting themselves.

GTAs – who let’s remember are also students – are being let down by King’s. We are asking for more training, and to be paid for more time, so that we can be the best teachers that we can be. Proper training and adequate compensation, which recognises the contributions of PhD students who teach, will drastically improve GTAs’ wellbeing.

Our proposed changes will produce GTAs who’s training reflects the high standard of King’s and who are treated with the dignity that they deserve as professional teachers and experts in their field.

GTA working conditions are everyone’s learning conditions, and student-wide support is vital for the success of this campaign!

What can students do?

1. All students from first years to PhDs should sign the petition so that KCLSU will support the campaign (meaning we’ll have more access to campaigning resources and meetings with King’s management to make change happen!) https://tinyurl.com/fairpay4gtas

2. If you’re currently a GTA, or have been a GTA since 2017-2018, we are collecting anonymous testimonials to present to the College. Complete the survey here: https://tinyurl.com/kclgtasurvey

3. Check the GTA blog for our full demands and updatesroa: https://kclgtas.wordpress.com/

4. Email us at kclgtacampaign@gmail.com – we are currently seeking campaign team members for rep positions at UCU and KCLSU.

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