Students Staff

15 September 2016

University of Essex takes action to support postgraduates who teach

Winners of the University's Early Career Awards 2016

Winners of the University's Early Career Awards 2016

The National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union have welcomed the University of Essex’s decision to take a stand on improving working conditions and boosting training opportunities for postgraduates who teach.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex Professor Anthony Forster said: “No other university is going quite as far as us and we believe our approach is sector leading. At the heart of what we are doing is making sure postgraduate students who teach at Essex are highly valued, appropriately supported and fairly paid.”

Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), praised the strategic changes being made: “NUS commends the work that Essex are doing to support their postgraduate teachers. We hope that their sector-leading practice is taken up by other institutions and that Essex continues to work directly with students to develop a thriving and inclusive academic environment for doctoral students to teach and research in.

“Since NUS published the first national survey of postgraduates who teach, we have seen many institutions begin to improve their practice. As Essex has found, when institutions actually talk to their teaching assistants and hear about the struggles they face, there is a realisation that failure to support postgraduate staff benefits no one.”

UCU President at the University of Essex Dr Chris Fox added: “UCU were closely involved in the consultation over improvement of Greaduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) terms and conditions. We are happy to have helped improve clarity concerning the rate of pay for GTAs, calculation of paid hours based on standard grades, payment for mandatory training, and other crucial issues.”

University of Essex Students’ Union President Zoe Garshong said: “As an Essex student myself, I know how valuable postgraduate students who teach are and how they have the power to impact a student’s educational experience greatly.

“We’re delighted to see the University give these students the support and payment they deserve and are proud to be working with them in helping pave the way for the sector as a whole.”

The way universities treat postgraduates who teach is a significant issue not just in the UK, but many other countries. At the end of August, the US National Labor Board ruled in a case involving Colombia University that when students teach in private institutions they have employee status.

Professor Forster said the University of Essex is putting in place one of the most comprehensive packages of support in the UK for GTAs, Graduate Laboratory Assistants (GLAs) and other postgraduates who take on teaching responsibilities.

GTAs and GLAs will now have the same rights and obligations enjoyed by other University of Essex employees. This change in status will lead to improvements in pay and conditions, training, mentoring and the sharing of good practice.

Professor Forster said: “Postgraduates make an incredibly valuable contribution to the educational experience of our students and the life of the University. They are working at the cutting edge of their fields and are inspirational in the way they share their excitement about their subject with students. We think postgraduates who teach need to be properly rewarded for sharing their expertise and inspiring our students.

“We’re impatient for change in the higher education sector and we’ve already taken action on closing the gender pay gap. Now through our People Supporting Strategy we are embracing the call for better conditions from the NUS in its report Postgraduates Who Teach, and in the Universities and College Union’s Postgraduate Employment Charter.

“We want to make sure we pay graduate teaching assistants and graduate laboratory assistants properly for their teaching and we want to provide the right level of support and training for them as trainee academics.”

More information about the University of Essex’s proposals for postgraduates who teach

From October 2016, postgraduates who teach at the University of Essex will be treated as trainee academics and placed on the University’s pay scale, with the University fully committed to providing all the help and support they need to fulfil their roles.

The action being taken by the University of Essex includes introducing improved recruitment processes, formalising pay and conditions, placing GTA and GLA roles on the University’s pay scale, pay for taking part in mandatory training and an expectation on departments to make sure postgraduates who teach take part in professional development activities.

There will also be improvements to induction, guidance and networking opportunities. This will include new briefings, workshops to share good practice, formal monitoring and feedback and an allocated mentor.

From 2017-18 GTA and GLA work will also no longer be a compulsory part of any new scholarships or stipend offers.

Further feedback from NUS and UCU

Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), said: “As a doctoral student myself, I have seen first-hand the difficulties graduate teaching staff face. Despite their relentless hard work, many are still not paid fully for their hours they work and lack the training and support they need to develop as teaching professionals.”

Dr Chris Fox from UCU said: ““UCU will continue to support and represent all students with teaching responsibilities as legitimate members of Essex academic staff.. We will be monitoring how well the improved terms and conditions of GTAs are working out and will also be gathering more information on Graduate Laboratory Assistants (GLA), as UCU continues to have concerns about their status. We are welcoming individual and collective feedback from any GTA, GLA or GD, which will be treated in confidence.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do you need GTAs to teach? 

We do not use postgraduate teachers as an alternative to appointing permanent staff. GTAs provide supplementary support to lecturers in the delivery of modules and they work closely with them in a teaching team. Of all the full time equivalent teaching in the University which contributed to teaching students in the HESA year 2014-15, only 3.5% was attributable to GTAs.

Are undergraduates being short-changed by postgraduates teaching them?

No. We agree with the National Union of Students “that undergraduates will benefit greatly from highly-skilled inspirational teachers, and many postgraduate teachers will go on to become inspirational lecturers, making a considerable contribution to academia.” GTAs provide supplementary support to lecturers in the delivery of modules and work closely as part of the teaching team.

Do other universities treat GTA/GLAs as members of staff?

We don’t know of any other university that has approached the issue of postgraduate teachers in such a comprehensive way, treating them as members of staff when teaching. We know of no university that has linked GTAs to a grade and spine point. The advantage of our approach to determining pay in this way, is that it it objectively assesses the level of responsibility and ensures equal pay for work of equal value, and is part of the University’s overall pay scheme, benefiting from annual uplifts conferred by national pay bargaining.

What training do GTAs/GLAs receive?

GTAs and GLAs only teach in subject areas in which they are specialists. They are also required by the University to undergo training that allows them to become Associate Fellows of the Higher Education Academy. Training focuses on areas such as providing feedback and assessment, support for learning, developing effective learning environments and emphasises the importance of continuing professional development.

Have postgraduate students been involved in shaping this new approach and what do they think?
Yes. The new principles were developed in a working group of current GTAs and GLAs with members of the Human Resources department, UCU, and the Dean of Postgraduate Research and Education. The working group proposals that were approved by the University Steering Group have received very positive feedback from GTAs/GLAs.

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