16 Sep University of Essex takes action to support postgraduates who teach
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.”