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Undervalued Overworked Taken for Granted A Report on PhD Working Conditions Undertaken by the University and College Union and The Students’ Union at Queen’s University Belfast

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Table of Contents Page Key Findings ……………………………………….3 Key Demands ……………………………..………..4 Introduction ……………………………………...…5 Background ………………………………………...7 Method ……………………………………………..10 Results ……………………………………………..11 Recommendations ………………………………16 A Fairer Payment System ……………………...18 Appendix: The neglect of the casualised workforce at QUB ………………....19 References/Useful Links………………………..21 2

Key Findings  Lack of regulation of the responsibilities of teaching assistants (TAs) across faculties, resulting in postgraduate research (PGR) students working under inconsistent working conditions.  Great discrepancies in terms of payment across faculties, resulting in PGR students receiving different pay despite doing similar work.  The expectation that PGR students should perform teaching related tasks for free, such as marking of formative assessments and keeping office hours.  A unified payment rate for marking student work, which results in PGR students marking essays and exams of various length and complexity for the same amount of money.  Low payment rates for teaching assistance, resulting in PGR students working below minimum wage.  An overall feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration with the teaching assistance scheme, resulting in PGR students feeling exploited and overlooked.


Key Demands

There should be no more unpaid marking of exams or assignments.

There should be no more unpaid office hours.

Payment for marking should reflect the real time it takes to do this work.

A new, fairer pay scale for various duties is proposed.


Introduction With the gradual marketisation, privatisation and funding cuts to the United Kingdom (UK) higher education sector, more and more elements of teaching and working conditions for staff are changing (Moleswortha et al., 2009). This is felt particularly acutely by those members of staff who are part of the “precariat” sector of academic employment (Puplampu, 2004). The “precariat” sector includes those on short-term contracts, those without financial stability and those who may lack research funding. Postgraduate research students in the UK in particular are faced both with financial pressures and the profession’s demand to take up teaching roles. Frequently PGR students lack sufficient funding opportunities that equate to living wage standards (Guardian, 2014), and the competitive academic employment market requires early career researchers to display evidence of teaching experience in addition to all the other expectations that young scholars currently face. Although many of the departments at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) allow students to develop teaching skills, enabling an all-encompassing development








employment market, the UCU has detected inequalities in payment and responsibilities across the university. This requires the attention of university administration to ensure fair standards and payments across all faculties. With many PGR students reliant on teaching income, and with multiple departments allowing for unfair payment standards and unregulated working conditions, we were keen to examine the current payment schemes across all faculties and generate quantitative data to identify discrepancies. The following report is based on 247 responses to a survey conducted in April 2016. It highlights grossly unfair and 5

inconsistent provisions in what PhD students are expected to do in the course of their work as either official teaching assistants (understood here as having signed an official contract) within their department, or simply as hourly contract staff without official titles and contracts but with teaching related responsibilities.

The following report lays out the findings of our analysis and provides not only a background to current developments in the broader higher education sector, but also to the misalignments in the way PhD students as teaching staff are treated and valued at QUB. Postgraduate employment is an essential cornerstone on which Queen’s and many other UK universities are based upon. Our work as teaching assistants is not simply supporting full-time staff members in their responsibilities, but also helping students in their academic development, one of the fundamental responsibilities of the higher education sector. The UCU therefore thinks that it is crucial for PhD students to receive fair pay and that the university administration moves away from undervalued, underpaid work. We encourage all PhD students and the university management to take the results of this study seriously and to implement changes that will lead to better working conditions, better teaching quality and ultimately better educational outputs, all of which are crucial for maintaining an education system of a high standard. Training postgraduates

for teaching






inappropriately is unacceptable.


Background Three years ago the National Union of Students (NUS, 2013) in the UK conducted the “Postgraduates Who Teach” survey. The results showed the diverse experience of postgraduates, with major differences between institutions, as well as internally between surveyed departments. The 1,476 responses the NUS received highlighted massive forms of “exploitations” (NUS, 2013, p. 5). Whilst 70% of postgraduates say they took up the teaching job in their school to improve their employability, many postgraduates were “forced” to teach, regardless of their interest or ability, as part of their course, or as a prerequisite for a scholarship or bursary.

In fact, 43% believed that they were receiving an unfair level of pay for their work. The survey found that the average hourly pay for postgraduate teachers was £19.95. However, a shocking 30% of those surveyed earned less than the national minimum wage in real terms (NUS, 2013). This is due to the fact that, on average, the respondents worked twice as many hours per week as they were paid for, downsizing the average “real hourly wage” to approximately £10, with a third of those surveyed working for less than £6.19 per hour, the National Minimum wage for over 21 year olds (Ablett, 2013). Unsurprisingly, the surveyed postgraduates teaching in Arts and Humanities subjects are the least happy with their pay (NUS, 2013), showing the lack of value placed on these subjects in the current higher education sector. On average, these subject-areas were only paid for one in every three hours worked.


The report provoked debates, notably in Durham University (Ablett, 2013), and added to a growing list of more recent public outcries on unfair teaching conditions (Grove, 2015; Else, 2015). The higher education sector is built upon unpaid or underpaid labour and is allowing a third of UK PhD students to be paid less than the National Minimum wage. The survey also uncovered issues around unspecified job descriptions







contractual agreements (almost one in three postgraduate teachers did not receive a contract), and a lack of training or induction before PhDs started their role. These numbers are even more worrying since at least 30% of postgraduate teachers have no departmental representation, akin to developments in QUB which the current report is trying to address. The NUS report coincided with the release of a “Postgraduate Employment Charter� by the UCU in conjunction with the NUS (2013). Both organisations raised 10 demands to tackle inequality in pay, emphasising the need for a better understanding by postgraduates about their specific rights in law, and better support, representation and training for any PhD involved in the teaching of university students. Specifically, the charter highlighted the essential need for a fair rate of pay. All postgraduates who teach should be paid fairly. This should include








administration, attending lectures, formative assessments and any other elements that involve supporting students. In addition, the UCU recommended that a postgraduate student should never be forced to teach without pay as part of their doctoral programme, or as a criterion for receiving a fee waiver or other non-cash bursary.


These demands are reflected not only in trade union discussions, but also within academia. Many academics are publishing on the dilemmas of the “efficiency university” policy, the everyday life of university teachers (Jauhiainen and Laiho, 2009) and the so-called “recessionary times” in the UK higher education sector (Evans, 2010). A substantial number of publications are engaging with the question of how to deal appropriately with and support postgraduate teaching assistance (Fisher, 1998; Masuka, 2009; Fairbrother, 2012; Lueddeke, 1997) and are emphasising the value of these graduate teaching schemes not only for PhDs, but for undergraduate students and the higher education sector in general. With the upcoming changes to QUB contained within the “Size and Shape Review” (2016), particularly the modification of assessment procedures, combined with departmental closures and in all likelihood staff cuts, there appears to be the intention within the university to make Queen’s into a “business” in a very literal sense (this was highlighted in a 2015 BBC documentary entitled “Queen’s: A University Challenged”). In this context, the UCU wants to address the until-recently unheard difficulties of PhD students who engage in teaching responsibilities in QUB departments. The upcoming passages highlight how the results of this study reflect and echo the previously discussed surveys, reports and publications. They require the attention not only of QUB staff, but the whole UK higher education sector if we are to ensure that the QUB slogan “We are exceptional” remains a phrase for outstanding research, and not a reference to “exceptional” (as in atypical) payment and teaching standards.


Method In order to gauge the attitudes of PhD students who do teaching work it was considered appropriate to use a survey that could be completed by as many students as possible. The survey questionnaire was initially designed by the PhD section of the UCU at QUB. This was then revised and edited by the UCU committee, with input from the Students’ Union (SU), before being updated and prepared for delivery by the SU. The “Survey Monkey” platform was used and the link for this was sent to the secretaries of all schools to be forwarded to all PhD students. This message was conveyed by most departments, although no responses were forthcoming from some. The survey was first conducted in April 2016.

The survey was designed to give a thorough overview of how many students do work for the university, how much time this takes, how much they are paid, and what, if any, work they are expected to do without pay. The data was also analysed to show discrepancies between schools.


Results The majority (78.6%) of PhD students say they are given the opportunity to take part in work for the university, and there is a sense that this work is useful for their career development. Unfortunately, for the majority of students this work does not take the form of teaching assistance (33.7%). Rather, it is restricted to less beneficial forms of work such as marking (51%), or classroom demonstration (34.9%). On average teaching assistants take 3.4 classes per week.

A more concerning picture emerges when closer attention is paid to the nature of this work, in particular preparation time. For instance, each teaching assistant spends an average of 5.5 hours per week preparing for their class. This means that the average teaching assistant, who should be paid ÂŁ33 per hour, is not receiving the minimum wage for each hour they work (ÂŁ6 compared with ÂŁ7.20).

Even more worrying is the fact that 40.7% of respondents say they are expected to do work for which they are not paid. This can take the form of office hours, meeting students, replying to student emails, and extra work for their supervisor. For 19% of respondents this unpaid work takes the form of marking student assignments/essays, exams or formative assessments. For







assessments take longer than 20 minutes to mark. The majority of those who mark exams say that this takes longer than the expected 20 minutes (78%), and for 26.7% this takes longer than 40 minutes. The pattern is similar for those marking student essays (see Figure 1). For many, there is no extra pay to be gained from this exam marking. For those who are paid for their work, the pay seems to deviate between 11

schools, but is normally around £3 per exam and anywhere from £4-£11 per assignment. Again, it seems that many are not paid the minimum wage for the time they put into marking. This has a negative impact on the morale of the PhD workforce. As one survey respondent commented, “Payment that does not reflect our effort and expertise is demoralising.”

Figure 1. Average time taken to mark assignments 90 80

No. of respondents

70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0 Up to 10

10 to 20

20 to 40

40 to 60

Over 60

Minutes Formative assessments



In the final section of the questionnaire respondents were asked to give general feedback on their conditions of work. Often these comments mentioned lack of payment, late payment, and excessive workloads with tough deadlines that need to be met. Some responses explained that the pressures they feel are made worse as a result of wider changes to the university:


“There is a very bad atmosphere in the School of [redacted to preserve anonymity] at the moment due to the pressure being put on academic staff to bring in funding. It seems that any kind of research that is not very expensive to carry out and therefore requires large grants, is not valued. This gives me a very bad impression of Queen's management, that they do not value their staff and has put me off applying for post-doctoral work here.”

A surprising number of respondents mentioned the poor conditions of their office space in which they complete their work with some offices having either inadequate or excessive heating. Some also mentioned that they have to “hot-desk” in their office, so there is no permanent place for them to store their materials. The lack of support for TAs with parental responsibilities was also highlighted. These students are “heavily penalised by the state of things and lack of policy”. Related to this is the fact that one in five respondents who consider themselves to have a disability claim that the university has not made adequate adjustments so they can take part in teaching. There were also many responses from PhD students who said that they would love to do teaching, but that this is not possible within their school.

“With increasing pressure on QUB staff to do more with less, measures should be taken to ensure that additional work is not simply offloaded onto unsuspecting graduate students (for free).” - Survey respondent


Many respondents were unhappy with their treatment as teaching assistants, but feared that raising this as an issue would hinder their ability to teach in future. Others made it clear that they would not accept future teaching as a result of the attitude taken by management towards TAs. Some schools proved extremely hostile to any criticisms made by TAs over their working conditions, with threats of contract termination made to recalcitrant PhD students. As one respondent noted, this clearly “does not promote a positive approach to work”.

“[S]pending hours each week marking reports based on a detailed mark scheme, means that I will be choosing not to demonstrate for the remainder of my PhD. It’s not a money issue, but a time issue.” - Survey respondent

Taken together, there is clear evidence that PhD students are willing and enthusiastic to do paid work for the university, and they believe this work to be useful in improving their career prospects. It is also clear however, that they have to work much longer than they would prefer, and their payment (when it is not late) is inadequate for the effort they put in. One particularly concerning comment from a respondent explained that some postgraduate women, often “from working-class backgrounds” with “no access to credit”, felt they had “little choice” but to go into sex work due to financial hardship. The university “does not want to address the issue”, and has done little, if anything, to help. This account resonates with others that have been published in the media recently (Belfast Telegraph, 2015)


The results of this survey are clear, and should serve as a wake-up call to management. PhD students are eager to work, and work hard to provide for their students, but their conditions of employment are clearly inadequate.



No Unpaid Marking The report shows that all too often PhDs are expected to do work that they are not paid for. This includes the marking of formative assessments and exams. The authors of this report believe that quality feedback given to students is an essential part of their education, and so it deserves to be valued. Expecting PhDs to do this work without payment impacts on the time they can afford to give, and so impacts on the quality of feedback. Both students and examiners deserve better.

No Unpaid Office Hours Our survey shows that PhDs are willing and passionate about helping students develop their knowledge and academic skills. One important part








sessions. This is a valuable service, and one PhDs are willing to provide, but the university must also acknowledge the value of this work.

Payment for marking that acknowledges the time it takes to mark effectively Currently, payment for marking is based on the assumption that it should take no more than 20 minutes to mark, and provide feedback. The data from our survey conclusively show that this is a false assumption, with 78% claiming it takes longer than 20 minutes. As fair marking, and quality feedback are the least our students deserve we recommend that this discrepancy must be acknowledged. Continuing with the status quo


means that students are not getting the feedback they deserve, and PhDs are not being paid the minimum wage for their work.

Fair and Equal Pay for Teaching Commitments Across all Departments As the current study highlights, multiple departments pay their students for teaching assistance at rates unequal with other schools, creating inconsistent working and payment conditions for all PGR students at QUB. The UCU recommends that the University administration amends the payment rates to ensure that they are fair and equal to everyone, and that they truly reflect the amount of time needed for preparation and delivery of teaching assistance.

A Stronger PhD Body The university is required to actively foster the unionisation of its PhD body that sits currently between both the student as well as the staff bodies. As many of the PhDs have contractual engagements with the university, we consider it essential that the academic UCU is primarily engaged with the demands and problems of PGR students. Many PhDs’ requests are not and cannot be sufficiently addressed by the Student Union as it clashes with our frequent teaching commitments. We therefore recommend to give more voice to PhD students in the current developments of the UCU in QUB and ensure that all students are actively engaged in it. Further, there should be accredited, and incentivised training for teaching, and full support from module coordinators on how to conduct lessons.


A Fairer Payment System Nature of Work


Teaching Assistance (Preparation)

£10x5.5 Hours (£55 per class)

Teaching Assistance (Class Time)

£20 per hour


£20 per hour

Office Hours

£20 per hour

Exam Marking

£6 per script

Assignment Marking (-2000 words)

£8 per script

Assignment Marking (2000-4000 words)

£10 per script

Assignment Marking (4000+ words)

£12 per script


Appendix: The neglect of the casualised workforce at QUB The conditions and poor pay structures endured by PhD students have been comprehensively detailed in the main report. However, whilst they form a critical and significant part of the university community they are by no means the only members of the “precariat” expected to provide teaching services for Queen’s in return for poor pay and inadequate conditions. UCU Headquarters have obtained intelligence that there are approximately 1,600 people involved in various types of part time teaching employment and working under a range of punitive contracts which provide neither security nor adequate financial reward. Queen’s UCU have repeatedly asked management for full details of all the people in this group but have not received a complete and comprehensive response to date. Possibly the most deprived sub group within the Queen’s “precariat” are tutors who provide valuable teaching services on a casual basis to schools such as Education. In the “Open Learning” Unit (formerly “Continuing” and before that “Extra-Mural” Education), tutors effectively work in a poorly paid “zero hours” environment. They are recruited to teach short courses, some of which can be credit-bearing and lead eventually to the award of an undergraduate degree. They are obliged to sign a contract in advance for every course they undertake to teach irrespective of whether this is for one day’s work or a 10 week programme. If enough students sign up for any of these courses then the preparation and research required to teach them effectively yields a financial return for the tutors. If adequate student numbers do not materialise then no payment is received. This is the “zero hours” aspect. 19

The rate per hour for such casual work is currently £22. Until recently this had remained static at £20 per hour. This is the lowest hourly rate for teaching paid to any Queen’s tutor. If tutors are expected to give advice to and mark the assignments of individual students the rate is £30 for a maximum of 12 assignments and £2.50 per any additional pieces of work.

There needs to an urgent reform of these exploitative conditions for such tutors. The University regards them as “contractors” to be dispensed with at will. In spite of their classification as effectively “one off” independent contractors they are faced with tax deductions as if they were actual staff of the University.

Tutors in this situation can graduate to being eligible for pension rights if their annual income from their work rises above £6,000. In this situation they can no longer be considered as “contractors for services” but it is unclear if the University recognises this.

A proportion of these tutors are either retired or in receipt of income from other sources outside the University. However many are young language tutors who are glad of any income and are therefore being particularly exploited. Irrespective of the individual circumstances of tutors the overall situation for all is one of unfairness and injustice.

The needs of this group in total need to be taken into consideration when the conditions of all part time teachers are exposed with a view to their reform and improvement


References Ablett, J. (2013), “University defends pay of PhD student teachers.” Palatinate, 14 March 2013 Belfast Telegraph (2015) “Sugar daddy website insists Queen's University Belfast students are not at risk” ( Else, H. (2015), “Sabbaticals: no longer so open-ended or available?” Times Higher Education. Available online at ( Evans, M. (2010), “Higher education in recessionary times: a UK colloquium.” Teaching in Higher Education, 15:5, pp 615-21 Fairbrother, H. (2012), “Creating Space: Maximising the potential of the Graduate Teaching Assistance Role.” Teaching in Higher Education, 17:3, pp 353-8 Fisher, R. (1998), “Developing University Teachers: an account of a scheme designed for postgraduate researchers on a lecturing career path.” Teaching in Higher Education, 3:1, pp 37-50 Grove, J. (2015), “Students facing ‘unlawful’ small print at almost 30 universities.” Times Higher Education. Available online at ( Guardian (2004), “Graduate teaching assistants deserve more than £4.40 per student per week.” Available online at ( Jauhiainen, A. and Laiho, A. (2009), “The dilemmas of the ‘efficiency university’ policy and the everyday life of university teachers.” Teaching in Higher Education, 14:4, pp 417-28


Lueddeke, G.R. (1997), “Preparing academics for teaching in higher education: towards an institutional model of professional practice.” Reflections on Higher Education, 9, pp 51-75 Masuka, V. (2009), “The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs): perceptions and reflections.” Teaching in Higher Education, 14:1, 1-12 Molesworth, M. Nixon, E. and Scullion, R. (2009) "Having, being and higher education: the marketisation of the university and the transformation of the student into consumer." Teaching in Higher Education, 14:3, pp 277-87 NUS (2013), “Postgraduates Who Teach.” Available online at ( Puplampu, K.P. (2004) “The restructuring of higher education and parttime instructors: A theoretical and political analysis of undergraduate teaching in Canada.” Teaching in Higher Education, 9:2, pp 171-82 Queen’s University Belfast (2016), “Institutional Size and Shape Review 2016.” Available online at (,63770 7,en.pdf) “Queen’s: A University Challenged.” [Television programme] First shown on BBC One, 10.35pm, 28 September 2015 UCU and NUS (2013), “Postgraduate Employment Charter.” Available online at (


Useful Links University and College Union:

UCU Members at Queen’s: @ucuatqub

QUB Students’ Union:

Student Support at QUB:


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