On the Exploitation of Postgraduates

Thinking through the implications of Friday’s announcement for teaching I saw the following advice sent out to students from Maynooth University

For the next few weeks most lectures will move online. You will be invited on-campus for practical classes, tutorials and for the teaching which requires a lot of interaction.

I can’t see significant numbers of students travelling to campus for a tutorial when they have no other teaching sessions but thinking about this yesterday I was struck by the decision that tutorials should go ahead while lectures shouldn’t. Tutorials are largely given by postgraduate students and it seems extremely unfair to me that they should be required to run the risk and incur the expense of travelling to campus in order to carry out in-person teaching, when full-time staff can minimize their chances of infection by staying at home and teaching remotely.

I’ll therefore be instructing all postgraduate tutors in my Department that they are not expected to run their tutorials on campus.

Yesterday I moaned about university staff being taken for granted but the situation is even worse for postgraduate tutors, who make an invaluable and essential contribution to teaching but are often treated horrendously badly by universities.

Take for example the scandalous situation at NUI Galway, where postgraduate students are being required to undertake 120 hours of unpaid teaching duties per year. The University’s justification for this is the following

Contributing to teaching is an integral part of the training of a research Master’s or PhD student. Teaching assists you in the acquisition of generic and transferable skills, and is an important element in the formation of a research graduate.

This may well be true but it does not constitute an argument why such work should be unpaid. I would argue that an even more “important element in the formation of a research graduate” is learning not to allow oneself to be exploited.

One of the very few things I can say I achieved in my time at Sussex was to abolish the use so-called Graduate Teaching Assistantships in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences that required postgraduates to do unpaid teaching and make all such work voluntary and paid.

I am well aware of the reason why Galway is trying this on – it’s the chronic underfunding of Ireland’s universities and colleges exacerbated by rampant managerialism – but that’s no excuse for institutionalised exploitation. I wholeheartedly support the postgraduates at Galway refusing to carry out unpaid teaching duties and hope the University will withdraw this unjustified and iniquitous policy.

4 Responses to “On the Exploitation of Postgraduates”

  1. The requirement to undertake teaching-related activities can be part of UKRI-funded postdoc positions, but have never heard of it being applied to postgraduate students. The reason that it is part of the training for a Masters or PhD student is false – it would only be part of the training if the person intends to pursue an academic career. This is not what undertaking postgraduate research is about. Yes, undertaking postgraduate research is necessary to a career in academia, but many (indeed most Masters and PhD graduates) will go into other careers.

    • Jonivar Skullerud Says:

      It is a requirement for PhD students in Norway to undertake teaching activities (200 hours a year i think, but it may have changed). However, PhD students are considered academic staff and usually reasonably well paid, and the requirement is part of your stipend condition or academic contract.

      • Interesting. Does the 200 hours per year include preparation time or is it just contact hours? Preparation time can be very significant. Also what is ‘reasonably well paid’? The UKRI student grant is about 45% of a postdoc starting salary (around £15K c.f. £33K), but the student is not paying tax, national insurance etc.

  2. Just a reminder that I do not accept anonymous comments. If you wish to comment here please supply a genuine name/email address.

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