Why Graduate Teaching Assistantships Should Be Scrapped

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times Higher about the variability in pay and working conditions for Graduate Teaching Assistants across the UK Higher Education sector. For those of you not up with the lingo, Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are (usually) PhD students who fund their doctoral studies by doing some teaching for the department in which they are studying. As the piece makes clear, the use of GTAs varies widely between one university and another across the country and indeed between one department and another within the same university. The use of such positions is higher in arts and humanities departments than in science and engineering, because the latter general have more opportunity to fund scholarships for PhD students, either from one of the Research Councils or elsewhere. Such scholarships pay a stipend (tax-free) as well as the fee for studying as a PhD student.

When I arrived at the University of Sussex last year I found that the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences operated a GTA scheme in parallel with Research Council bursaries. Students funded by a research council scholarship received a stipend paid at a national rate of about £13,600 per annum, but were able to top this up by undertaking a limited amount of teaching in the School (e.g. marking coursework, helping with workshops, or demonstrating in the teaching laboratories). Externally funded students did teaching on a voluntary basis. The GTAs on the other hand were required to undertake a fixed amount of teaching without remuneration in order to cover their fees.

I found this two-tier system unfair and divisive, with students funded as GTAs clearly treated as second-class citizens. One of the first major decisions I made as Head of School was to phase out the GTA scheme and replace it with bursaries on exactly the same terms as externally-funded ones with the same opportunity to top up the stipend with some teaching income. I announced this at a School meeting recently and it was met with broad approval, the only reservation being that it would be difficult if too few students opted to do extra teaching to cover the demand. I think that’s unlikely, actually, because although the stipend is not taxable so is equivalent to a somewhat higher amount in salary terms, Brighton is quite an expensive part of the country and most students would opt for a bit of extra dosh. Also, it is actually very good for a PhD student to have teaching experience on their CV when it comes to looking for a job.

Existing GTA schemes make it too easy for departments engage in exploitative behaviour, by dumping a huge amount of their teaching duties on underpaid and unqualified PhD students. It’s also unfair for the undergraduate students, nowadays paying enormously high fees, to be fobbed off onto PhD students instead of being taught by full-time, experienced and properly trained staff. Of course the system I’m advocating will be difficult to implement in departments that lack external funding for PhD students. Having to pay a full-stipend for each student will be more expensive and will consequently lead to a reduction in the number of PhD students that can be funded, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the whole structure of undergraduate teaching will have to change in many departments. From what I’ve seen in the National Student Survey, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either…

As I’ve argued a number of times on this blog, the current system drastically overproduces PhD students. The argument, a matter of simple arithmetic, is that on average in a steady state each potential PhD supervisor in the university system will, over their entire career, produce just one PhD student who will get a job in academia. In many fields the vast majority of PhDs have absolutely no chance of getting a permanent job in academia. Some know this, of course, and take their skills elsewhere when they’ve completed, which is absolutely fine. But I get the strong feeling that many bright students are lured into GTAs by the prospect that an illustrious career as an academic awaits them when really they’re just being hired as cheap labour. The result is a growing pool of disillusioned and disaffected people with PhDs who feel they’ve been duped by the system.

The British system of postgraduate research study is that it basically takes three years to do a degree. In the United States it usually takes much longer, so the employment of students as GTAs has less of an impact on their ability to complete their thesis on schedule. Although there are faults with the UK’s fast-track system, there is also much to recommend it. Not, however, if the student is encumbered with a heavy teaching load for the duration. The GTA scheme (which incidentally didn’t exist when I did my PhD nearly thirty years ago) is a damaging American import. In much of continental Europe there are far fewer PhD students and in many countries, especially in Scandinavia, PhD students are actually paid a decent wage. I think that’s the way we should go.

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4 Responses to “Why Graduate Teaching Assistantships Should Be Scrapped”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, good. Absolutely right.

  2. “Some know this, of course, and take their skills elsewhere when they’ve completed, which is absolutely fine.”

    This is true in some cases. As you say, most can’t stay. The problem is that who stays is not based only on academic ability and otherwise suitability to a permanent position, but on many other factors as well. Even ignoring, for the moment, nepotism and other forms of corruption which exist (I will include “trailing spouses” in dual-career programmes in this, and “leading spouses” and the dual-career programmes themselves as well), with so few positions available not only at the transition to permanent jobs but also at the various other career phases, it is often little better than a crap shoot in determining who stays and who goes. Someone, whether his own fault or not, who doesn’t perform at 150% at the crucial time is essentially kicked out forever. (Be happy that your mental illness became evident after you got a permanent job!)

  3. telescoper Says:

    Let me remind potential commenters (yet again) that I do not allow comments to be posted unless a genuine name and/or email address are given.

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