What a way to make a living | A PhD student and part-time tutor

David Evans writes for the What a Way to Make a Living series on the pitfalls of precarious working as a PhD student teaching part-time in a university.

Photo: Steve Eason

I’m a PhD student, and I teach on a first-year undergraduate module at my institution. I have five hours paid work per week: one hour to attend that week’s lecture, one hour to prepare my teaching, two hours to deliver both of my classes and one hour to be available to meet with my students outside of class. I am expected to mark a portion of student assignments on my module too, but this is dealt with separately. The work itself is really valuable; I love my subject, so I love having the opportunity to help others develop an interest in it too, especially since my students are always so engaged. It’s great experience for a future career in higher education, and it pays a decent rate per hour. The frustrations (for me) aren’t with the work itself, but with the conditions that myself and my colleagues are expected to work under. 

Students who teach at my institution are all on zero-hours contracts, which are with a temp work agency rather than with the university itself. We have to submit the number of hours we have worked online every week, and get these approved and signed off by a member of our school’s administrative staff. Besides the general precarity and insecurity that comes from being on a casualised contract – a disappointingly normal practice across the higher education sector – not being contracted internally as an employee of the university comes with its own problems. 

Because we aren’t considered employees, we aren’t covered by the university’s agreement with our union regarding industrial action, so we couldn’t withdraw our labour during recent strike action without being considered in breach of our contract. Our branch of our union had to make it explicit that students who teach wouldn’t be considered to be crossing picket lines as a result. Those of us who wanted to join the picket line could only do so outside of our working hours, which often felt counterintuitive at best. I had to ask for a speech I wrote about casualisation to be delivered at the picket line by somebody else, because my own casualised contract was preventing me from being there to deliver it myself! 

For the same reason, we also don’t get to make contributions to a pension scheme and are not able to claim any paid sick- or compassionate leave. A student once expressed to me that they caught a chest infection off their postgraduate seminar tutor because said tutor was obviously unwell but came in because they couldn’t afford to lose their pay that week. In my own experience, I recently experienced a bereavement in my family, but couldn’t take any time off from my classes without losing that week’s pay. 

That there is no typical internal contract for student teachers also means there is little to no consistency in the nature of student-teacher contracts across my institution. This means schools and faculties can essentially make their own decisions about how they want to pay us. From experience and many discussions with colleagues, no faculty has quite the same approach to how much preparation time it thinks is necessary, nor how much time we should be given to mark and provide feedback on an essay. You can be paid more or less for exactly the same work, just by virtue of where in the university you happen to be teaching. 

Pushing for change is a long and difficult process, and it isn’t something that everyone feels safe doing. Frustratingly, it’s not uncommon for us to experience veiled threats of removing student teaching positions altogether if we aren’t satisfied with our conditions. Undergraduate teaching would likely collapse if this was ever followed through with, but it’s an effective line to young academics who need the extra income and the experience to enter a fiercely competitive jobs market. 

In terms of union support, If you’re a student who teaches at a higher education institution, you have access to free membership of the University and College Union for four years. This is a really positive initiative that I don’t think enough people who do my job know about, so I try and put it out there as much as possible! Casualised employment in academia has recently come onto the UCU’s agenda, though I am yet to see much in the way of a coordinated national campaign to address this; much of the union’s attention has been devoted to the (very legitimate) concerns of fully contracted academic staff regarding their workload and pension scheme. 

More effective has been organising from within. At my institution, we have an anti-casualisation group, which our branch of the union has actively supported without being directly affiliated. This group itself emerged from a campaign group which successfully secured a rate of hourly pay for hospitality and non-academic staff consistent with the national living wage. As I discussed earlier, one of the biggest obstacles to pushing for improvements has been the inconsistencies with our employment; our problems are not necessarily the same even between modules in the same School, let alone between Schools or between Faculties. How can you make an effective, collective push for change if the changes you all need are so different? Meeting monthly and having regular discussions has allowed us to identify these inconsistencies and shout them out, identify examples of good and bad practice across the institution and begin to hold the powers that be accountable. We’re starting to see progress, too: the university recently agreed to a better set of principles for working with student teachers that we are now working to implement. In my own faculty, I am starting to see this manifest in a more consistent approach to the work we are required to do, which in turn is leading to an increase in paid hours that is more reflective of what we actually have to do. 

These are early milestones on the road to driving out zero-hours contracts and the outsourcing of labour in higher education altogether, but they could not have been reached without collective action, and this is definitely to be celebrated.

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