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Arts & Humanities Faculty Freezes GTA Hiring

Last week, the KCL Arts and Humanities Faculty froze graduate teaching assistant (GTA) hiring for September 2020. GTAs do not have long-term contracts – rather, they are rehired every year. If the freeze is not lifted, every GTA in the faculty will be made redundant. While the full freeze is unlikely to continue, this measure has introduced serious uncertainty for many postgraduate research students (PGRs) who rely on the income from teaching to support themselves. This is especially true since that faculty also notified PGRs that, no matter what, there will be fewer teaching opportunities in the next academic year.

Roar reached out to the Fair Pay for GTAs (FP4GTAs) campaign to get some sense of the GTA view on the situation. We also sought comment from the Arts and Humanities Faculty. A King’s College London spokesperson responded: “We fully understand everyone’s concerns about future planning. We remain committed to providing teaching and learning opportunities and GTAs will continue to be part of this.”

How bad is it?

First, this hiring freeze has serious impacts on PGR research and career prospects. One student said simply that, “Not being able to teach next year will mean having to leave London before the end of my PhD.” This applies to new and experienced GTAs alike. Simone, a fourth-year PhD student who has taught four separate modules across three years, said she had been “relying on the prospect of continued GTA work next year,” and further noted that the freeze decision was “destabilising and difficult to deal with.”

The problem has longer term impacts. The academic job market is highly competitive under normal circumstances – COVID is likely to make things even harder. “To stand out,” one student said, “PhDs have to ensure we have plentiful experience.” The loss of GTA work entails cost to CVs and to professional development, exacerbating existing inequities in academia to the disadvantage of early career researchers.

When and how will King’s respond?

Roar has not received any comment from King’s on when a response might be forthcoming.

Fair Pay for GTAs provided a comment, outlining their position on how King’s should respond to this issue:

“We understand that universities across the country are facing uncertainty. We know that there are some questions that can’t be answered yet. But we are calling on King’s for transparency. No conversation about us should be happening without us. King’s need to commit to providing paid opportunities for alternative training and professional development if GTA positions will be reduced or scrapped. And if teaching is going to move online, King’s must commit to adequate paid training for this new way of working. Either way: management must be working to one scenario or another. We need to be kept in the loop and included in the decision-making process. We  need to see that King’s cares for our mental wellbeing, our professional development, and our financial stability in these challenging times.”

The situation is not entirely bleak. In February, King’s management agreed to a proposal to increase GTA budgets for the Arts & Humanities, Social Science & Public Policy, and Natural & Mathematical Science faculties. In particular, more money would be assigned to paying for lesson preparation and marking – as GTAs are currently paid just 2 hours a week for preparation, which is generally insufficient. Whether this commitment will survive COVID-19 remains to be seen.

What can be done?

GTAs are, to quote the campaign, “so swamped with our PhDs, jobs for side income or main income, and in many cases, family responsibilities, that most of us don’t have time or can’t afford to take action [to protest poor treatment].” While King’s does have forums to consult PhD students, the campaign sees little link between these discussions and substantive action. Given how busy most postgraduate researchers are, and the transient nature of their position at the college, options to apply pressure are limited.

Nonetheless, FP4GTAs has pledged to “keep putting pressure on the College to provide support and security to their precarious staff.” They will do this through collaboration with other GTA campaigns around the country. Striking as part of a broader UCU effort is also on the table.

Students wishing to support their efforts should sign and share this open letter about the hiring freezes. “If you feel confident”, the campaign says, “make a fuss on social media and share our story.” The more public pressure, the more likely it is for KCL to respond. Writing opinion pieces for Roar or other student publications is also encouraged. The campaign further emphasises that this issue is structural. They say we should “Ask them [KCL] to ensure people on short term contracts don’t lose their jobs at the last minute. Put pressure on KCL to retain cleaners and other professional services staff to ensure no one in the King’s community is left abandoned during this already difficult time.”

The most important and practical point is to be understanding of GTAs – and indeed all teaching staff – who have seen their workloads expand dramatically to cope with online teaching and assessment marking. Demanding that KCL pay them for this overtime would also be a good idea, they say.

Roar will keep you updated as the situation develops.


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