‘Teaching studentships’? No thanks!

As part of its ‘Distinctively Derby’ branding push, the University of Derby recently advertised ‘up to 11 full-time PhD studentships to be held as Graduate Teaching Assistantships’. Billed as ‘great opportunit[ies] for suitably qualified and ambitious students’, these positions involve ‘work[ing] with our academics to address a predefined research topic’ while undertaking a ‘limited amount of teaching’—the precise extent is never actually specified, either in the advert or on the university web page to which applicants are directed. In return, students will receive a £14,100 p.a. stipend for three years.

There is nothing unique about these studentships, applications for which close tomorrow. In recent years, universities have increasingly tried to cut staff costs by offering awards which mimic those offered through Research Councils UK (current stipend rate £14,057 p.a.) while piling on unremunerated teaching. Similar positions have been used by the universities of York, Kent, Leicester, UCL and a number others. But Derby’s advert, with its euphemistic ‘to be held as’, gives the lie once and for all to the idea that these sorts of teaching studentships are a reasonable or fair form of academic labour.

The standard RCUK studentship rate, already pretty meagre, is designed to support students to work full-time on their PhD for, in most cases, a period of three years. While a small amount of teaching is allowed, the RCUK Training Grant guide makes clear that it ‘must not be compulsory and must be paid for at the [university]’s usual rate’. Teaching studentships offered outside the RCUK system have no such guarantee, meaning that PhD candidates can either be contracted to undertake a large amount of teaching as a condition of their award, or, in the absence of a formal contract, have unpaid work thrown at them whenever their institution deems fit. With most awards maintaining the standard three-year period, the overall effect on students’ academic progress is potentially catastrophic.

A former PhD candidate at UCL told FACE how the university simply stopped paying for teaching, despite it remaining compulsory for second- and third-year students on certain scholarships. ‘I wasn’t given a contract until well into my first year,’ she recalled. ‘One year they [i.e. management] doubled my teaching a week before September term started.’ Academic staff are all too aware of these bad practices. An employee at another London university described how ‘a recent graduate of mine wanted to take up such a studentship, even sacrificing the right supervisor for the opportunity to be funded. It devalues the research process and the opportunity for students to pursue research they want to do, and many applicants are absolutely clueless about the impact on their PhD and the exploitation involved in these opportunities.’ The supervisor persuaded her student to apply for a fully-funded studentship without teaching commitments instead, but emphasised that ‘many don’t know what they are getting into.’

Teaching studentships are generally designed to mirror research council awards, particularly in their financial aspects, thereby concealing the vast quantities of extra labour that many departments receive from these special arrangements. In some cases, however, there is a further level of concealment. In the University of Kent’s School of European Culture and Languages, five ‘50th anniversary scholarships’ were advertised this year, offering ‘a maintenance grant and a salary which will total an amount equivalent to that offered by the Research Councils for 2015’. Only when reading the small print would an applicant realise that, for every annual increment in the salary portion (in line with the national pay spine), ‘the scholarship element will be reduced so that the overall stipend paid will be as stated in the original award letter.’ In other words, students will be paid progressively less, in real terms, for every year of their PhD.

These exploitative positions, which require at the very least a good Master’s degree but pay significantly less than the Living Wage, aren’t only bad for the students who hold them. The existence of a readily available pool of what is essentially free labour, usually put to work on large, first-year undergraduate courses, allows universities to undermine the pay and conditions of other staff. In the event of strike action by unionised academic staff, PhD students can be made to pick up the slack, with the threat of academic sanctions if they refuse to meet the teaching obligations specified in their awards.

If your department or others in your institution offer these sorts of studentships—and especially if you’re a student in receipt of one—consider coming along to FACE’s next organising meeting, on August 25th at the University of Birmingham, to share your experience and help build a movement against the exploitation of academic labour across UK higher and further education. By combining local campaigns with strong organisation on a national level, we can fight casualisation and other forms of exploitation wherever they emerge, securing fair pay and conditions for all!

Photo: University of Derby T/B stairs, by Lottemess

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7 thoughts on “‘Teaching studentships’? No thanks!”

  1. This seems a bit of an extreme post to me. I do share some of the concerns but Louis goes too far in presenting these studentships as wholly exploitative. First, on their value. They are not worth only £14.1k p/a; they also involve a fee waiver of just over £4k p/a, so the total cost to the university is over £18k p/a per student. For that, the student is expected to do a certain amount of teaching; you’re right that the amount is unclear in some places (which is not acceptable), but generally speaking I would be surprised if it exceeded 5-6 hours per week, usually over a period of about 24 weeks per year, i.e. a max of 144hrs p/a, which equates to nearly £98 p/h – hardly below the “living wage”, even if one tripled or quadrupled the hours to allow for preparation and marking. A lot of PhD students are grateful for the money and also the opportunity to teach, which is an important experience for those seeking future academic employment. Sure, these studentships are not as good as RCUK ones. But for many, it is the difference between being able to do a PhD, and not being able to.

    Second, on the intentions of the departments offering them. My own department offered GTA studentships for the first time last year, and I supported this strongly. Was it so we could undermine the conditions of our own labour? No, it was because (a) we want to increase the PhD student cohort but external and internal funding sources are extremely limited and (b) we have a persistent need for TAs in large first-year courses that we always fill with hourly-paid labour from among our PhD students. We saw an opportunity to use some of our own money to invest in PhD students, which would also provide greater stability and continuity for those teaching our undergraduates, which is better for the TAs and better for the undergrads. Far from being mean-spirited, greedy and exploitative, it is a very significant increase in expenditure for the School and carries greater risk for us, because if those holding GTA studentships turn out to be lousy teachers, it is much harder to tackle than if we hire someone on an hourly-paid basis. Frankly I’m a bit surprised that a campaign against casualisation would fail to appreciate that holding a GTA studentship provides more stability and security than regular TA’ing.

    Third, on the issue of labour conditions and scabbing. UCU membership is entirely free for PhD students, so there is no reason why they cannot participate fully in industrial action and no reason to see GTAs as potential scab labour that force pay and conditions down for everyone else. At QMUL, we have operated strike funds during industrial action to ensure that any hourly-paid GTAs are paid for lost work out of branch coffers.

    All in all, while it is certainly possible for GTAs to be badly exploited and practice will obviously vary from place to place, I think this article is very sweeping and frequently unfair. If there is a form of exploitation happening it is arguably in taking so many PhD students on in the first place, in full knowledge that the vast majority will never secure their desired goal of academic employment and many will not end up in careers related to their PhDs. That we continue to recruit so many is in important part a perverse incentive of the REF’s “environment” section, and also due to various institutional “strategies” to “increase PhD numbers by X,000% by year Y”, with the rationale for this never actually specified. Challenging the rationale always raises uncomfortable questions among my colleagues, and I’m sure it opens me up to accusations of gate-keeping from potential and actual PhD students. But I think we need a frank discussion about this, not least because this is where the exploitative element really does come in: many PhDs do important teaching for two or three years, on the mythical assumption that it will lead to an academic job, then, inevitably, they are eventually cast aside. That seems a lot more objectionable than GTA studentships.

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  2. Thanks for commenting in such detail, Lee. I sense that there is some distance between our basic positions, but will try to address your numbered points in order, putting forward my own view rather than that of FACE (though it may coincide with the views of other members).

    1. Diving the stipend by the total teaching hours to get an hourly rate for the studentship makes about as much sense as doing the same for a professor’s salary/teaching load. I understand research to be labour in the same way as teaching, and I think most academic staff and PhD students do too. This is what I mean when I compare PhD studentships to jobs paying the Living Wage. Fee waivers are irrelevant in this case: I wouldn’t pay an employer several thousand pounds for the privilege of using their office, interacting with their staff, etc., so shouldn’t be expected to adopt an attitude of humble gratitude when spared a similar burden by a university.

    2. Under the first point, you write that teaching studentships are often ‘the difference between being able to do a PhD, and not being able to’, and under the second you use this to defend the intentions of departments offering them. In your final paragraph, though, you question this attitude, writing that ‘if there is a form of exploitation happening it is arguably in taking so many PhD students on in the first place’. To put it bluntly, I agree with the latter point, and I don’t think there’s anything in the article to suggest that I wouldn’t. Ideally, I would like PhD studentships to be regulated in such a way that universities would be forced to offer any internal awards at exact parity of pay/conditions with RCUK awards, and I would be happy to see a drastic reduction in the overall number of candidates as a condition of this, with self-funding strictly for viscounts and the daughters of billionaires. (This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t, currently, plenty of self-funded students who are obviously just as well-qualified as funded students, but who have been unlucky in the selection process. How to make selection more fair is a whole different issue.) I think the sense of a PhD as a vocation, particularly in the arts and humanities, is pernicious, and I say that as somebody who wouldn’t be able to do a PhD if I wasn’t being paid for it. On your surprise ‘that a campaign against casualisation would fail to appreciate that holding a GTA studentship provides more stability and security than regular TA’ing’, I’d counter with surprise at your failure to appreciate that arguing against one bad thing doesn’t imply support for another. I’d also point out that paid TA’ing on top of a decent studentship (or, in the best-case scenario, on top of your rich parents’ savings) is significantly less precarious than trying to complete a PhD in three years on top of an unspecified amount of unpaid teaching. Hourly-paid teaching as your only form of income on top of a full-time PhD and no savings is obviously worse, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

    3. You make a valid point about UCU membership. My point was that awards which combine teaching with working towards an academic qualification create more levers through which universities can put pressure on students, e.g. through academic sanctions, withdrawal of funding, etc. The legal status of students on teaching studentships can be murky, particularly when contracts are unclear, making them more vulnerable (or at least making them _feel_ more vulnerable) than permanent academic staff or RCUK award-holders doing hourly paid teaching.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment at length – I hope the above clarifies my position a bit.

    EDIT: For the benefit of anyone straying this far down the comments in future, I just want to clarify that I don’t have anything against self-funding per se; if you can make it work, particularly part-time, and you go into it with a full understanding of the situation, that’s obviously just as valid as doing a PhD in any other way. What gets me is the atmosphere of vocation that surrounds applying to PhD courses, which I think is really dangerous and liable to mislead people (and I don’t mean this in a patronising way – I can remember buying into it myself). In fact, given the state of the academic job market, I think this atmosphere is dangerous whatever funding package you end up with. Teaching studentships are, I think (and this is all, again, my personal view) a prime example of the mystification that surrounds PhDs from the applicant’s perspective – you’re applying for a position with no real idea of how difficult it might be to balance the various responsibilities, or even what the responsibilities are in some cases. Unlike with a normal job, you’re effectively locked into it for three years, not by the contract itself but by the psychological cost of dropping out mid-course and having thereby ‘wasted’ a few years of what could have been pay rises/career advancement in a different field. It’s a massive gamble for people who are, after all, almost by definition the most well-qualified applicants in the wider employment market. I think it’s easier for me to hold this position because I have quite a sceptical attitude towards the value of PhD research in general (including my own!) and can’t really imagine being driven enough to self-fund, but that’s just me being a grumpy old man & I recognise that most people are more postitive on this point. I just wanted to make it a bit more clear where I’m coming from, both in the article and in the comments.

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    1. Thanks for your response, Louis.

      On 3: agree there is a need for clarity and this is a task for UCU, HR, professional associations, etc, but the possibility of mere “feelings” are not a good reason to oppose a policy.

      On 1 and 2: I’m not sure the student/ prof comparison works fully insofar as the student is obviously an apprentice/ in training. I’m also not sure that many people would accept that doing a research degree is a job, though in Scandinavia that is accepted (but, problematically, it also means you would be a state employee). But let’s put it another way. If society thinks it is a good thing to have more PhD graduates, it ought to ensure the students are properly resourced during their studies. We can agree on that. Under current conditions, you seem to say this would mean rationing PhD entry to match available resources — whether we continued to use studentships, or paid salaries (as QMUL is actually now investigating). That would radically reduce the chances of doing a PhD for all but the offspring of viscounts and oligarchs. Fair enough, if that’s what you want. I’m not sure I’d endorse it. The way I square the circle is to be very frank with applicants at the outset about their prospects in academia and try to prepare them either to be very competitive in the academic job market and/or to acquire other workplace skills so they are not merely cast aside. Being frank and offering the difficult choice to students as to whether to embark on a PhD or not (as well as the financial opportunity to do so) seems a bit better than just closing down opportunities altogether (after all, there will always be some students who get GTA studentships who do make it into academia, but wouldn’t even get to do a PhD under your proposals). If that’s true, then we have to think of creative ways to help students finance their studies (while also combating institutional pressures to recruit willy-nilly, and being very honest, and providing training, etc, etc).

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  3. I absolutely agree that being frank with applicants about the academic job market is one of the better ways of dealing with this issue within the current constraints. But I think what we need to get away from, fundamentally, is the idea of a PhD studentship as some sort of ultimate golden opportunity that it is somehow immoral to restrict, rather than a form of labour for which there is simply quite limited demand. Maybe I am eccentric in this respect. I won’t bother making a stupid comparison with bus conductors or something, but even other, highly intellectual forms of labour (novelist, theatre critic, etc.) are rarely conceptualised in this way, despite being even more scarce than PhD places. The ‘oligarch problem’ could be solved easily by abolishing self-funding altogether, though I realise this would appear even more restrictive and would probably require an overall boost in PhD funding to keep up with teaching demand (and, as above, fairer and more rigorous selection). Fantasy proposals aside, I still think teaching studentships are unfair and potentially exploitative _within_ the present environment, for the various reasons discussed above.

    Anyway, back to (what I understand as) the day job!

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  4. Whilst being sympathetic to the overall feeling here, and a campaigner against casualisation in HE, I must say I disagree some parts of the article. I’m a self-funded PhD, working on an hourly-paid teaching contract in my department and others for the last 5 years (I had to go PT a while ago to help make time and money work). My main issues are 1) your assumption that the PhD should be paid work and 2) failure to recognise the advantages this type of employment has over hourly-paid TA contacts.

    On point 1) – wouldn’t it be great if this was the case and that doing a PhD was a paid job. This is what RCUK (and other externally sponsored) scholarships are for, I suppose – someone thinks your research is of value and sponsors you to do it. In my field (social sciences) they’re rare awards and of a yearly cohort of about 30 in my department maybe 2 are on ESRC or AHRC awards. The rest are either international funded (perhaps ironically, often by their governments) or self-funded (who are the majority). However, we don’t live in this world and its hard to think how universities and their departments can change this. By all means lobby for greater RCUK funding and get more people paid to do their PhDs. However, as things stand I don’t think it’s a viable starting point to assume the PhD constitutes paid work, although I’d agree that maybe it should for a whole host of reasons (widening access and opportunity, encouraging more diverse research etc.). Your point that you wouldn’t expect to pay your employer to use offices etc. rather misses the point that most PhD students do exactly that as students. Bear in mind PhD research output, for the most part, isn’t of huge value to universities. As has been mentioned, these types of studentships are FAR more expensive for the department so it’s hard to see how the logic behind them is especially nefarious – staff costs can easily be kept low by keeping hourly wages low for PhDs and other hourly-paid staff but there are limits to this – new PhDs are unlikely to be designing courses and giving regular lectures but are more likely to be taking seminars, demonstrations and tutorials. There’s limits to the staff cost savings to be made here – you can’t just replace lecturers and postdoc teaching fellows with PhD students.

    On point 2) – from my perspective, £14k plus a ~3.5k fee waiver would be wonderful. I teach around 20-25 weeks of the year on an hourly-paid rate and in a good year where I have plenty of teaching allocation can just about clear £10k. Take off the fees and its down to 6.5k. The rate I’m paid at isn’t in itself a bad rate (£22ish per teaching hour plus the same rate for preparation and other rates for marking, office hours etc.), probably about average for this kind of work and there are a handful of benefits like expenses.

    This mode of work has several problems – hourly-paid income is infrequent – no pay at all between Easter and October – which leads to issues with tax, NI, proof of income etc. Hourly-paid staff are still unlikely to know their timetables ahead of time (although the problem is inverted for me – I’m more worried about not enough teaching than too much, and do have the option to turn it down if I think it’s too much – for the most part I jump at the chance for more work – I don’t have the choice if I need the money even though it eats into my research time). To receive a guaranteed stipend of £14000 each year (even better if it was distributed at just over £1k per month) would make financial planning easier and obviously be more money as well. The basic fact is that self-funded PhDs trying to live on hourly-paid contracts don’t have the luxury of thinking their PhD is part of their job – it’s something they have to do in their spare time outside of teaching, which is what buys food and keeps the lights on. And no, my department is not made up of oligarchs and children of the aristocracy, but of people who try to get by on very little having saved enough to pay their fees (typically paying a lot of their own research costs such as travel for fieldwork as well).

    The problems I see with this type of studentship are twofold. Firstly:

    1) The idea that you might get an unmanageable amount of teaching. This is a problem that can easily be solved with proper contracting containing maximum/minimum hours and the types of work that would be expected. It’s the implementation of these studentships that seem to be the problem described in the article rather than the model itself, especially in your anecdotes. I agree that there is a real risk of exploitation from poorly defined contracts, and where this is the case students should ask their union for help.

    2) Unequal treatment between teaching studentships and employed self-funded students. Getting the pay and conditions equal between these two groups is going to be really hard. To make £14k (never mind the fee waiver) I’d need to work over 26 hours per week for the 24 weeks of teaching. Chances are the student on a studentship is almost certainly making a lot more per hour than their PhD colleagues on hourly-paid contracts.

    I don’t really buy the ‘scab labour’ point as I believe such students have a legally recognised right to strike if their services are paid for by the university. Again, this goes back to the clear contracting point, and should be made clear. Unions at branch level should ensure that this is the case. Also, a lot of senior academics, including department heads, are UCU members. They don’t want to see their own strikes broken and it’s them, not university management, who these students will be accountable to. It might, however, apply to precarious hourly-paid staff who might have all their employment on a strike day and lose a weeks pay – a big disincentive not to strike.

    In sum, I don’t see the studentship itself as the problem IF it is done correctly (Unfortunately in many cases it’s done badly, by the looks of things) – as has been mentioned already in the comments it is a vastly superior option than hourly-paid teaching for PhD students. To reject all progress in the name of a perfect solution is a problematic approach.

    I would like to see such studentships be turned into fixed-term pro rata salaried positions (within a guaranteed minimum/maximum hours band), and extended to all those who wish to teach at this level during PhD study (a job title like Doctoral-Candidate Teaching Fellow or similar). This would eliminate many of the problems of hourly-paid employment (whilst not necessarily costing the universities more) and would give those employed a lot more stability than they currently have.

    I won’t comment on the issue of restricting PhD places to match available RCUK funding except to say that this would be a very sad state of affairs unless the RCUK budgets were to increase about tenfold. It’s to suggest that because scarce funding cannot be found, the research isn’t interesting, relevant or useful, and to deny career prospects for thousands of people wanting to enter academia or other jobs where a PhD is an advantage. Much better to see wages for PhD teaching rise enough to cover their living costs for those years.

    Finally, as a point of clarity – UCU membership is free for unpaid postgraduate students – if they are paid, they should pay subscriptions according to their income. So if you teach, it isn’t free (but is still very cheap and highly recommended!).

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  5. I’m afraid I’m rather late to this party. Reading the initial exchange between Louis and Lee, I tend strongly toward Louis’s position, that research and teaching—and indeed training, both specifically for these areas and more general professionalization—should all be paid, at all levels. (Similarly, undergrads should be paid, or otherwise funded, for carrying out their studies, but that’s not necessarily a discussion that is relevant here.) These ‘studentships’ are on a continuum with the increasingly common expectation that one spend a year unfunded post-master’s working on a PhD proposal and funding application, and with the ludicrous 0.5FTE teaching fellowships offered by some research-intensive universities, in which managers repeatedly tell the holders of these fellowships how lucky they are because they have the rest of the week to work (unpaid, of course) on their research. And both of these point toward a dismal future in which academics are paid to teach, but also expected to produce research (and disciplined if they don’t), but without the paid time (or in many cases the time at all) to do it. The implications of dissenting from Louis’s (and my) position are that research become a leisure activity, and therefore accessible only to those of private means.

    This is complicated, though, by the fact (I prefer ‘sad reality) that there are a bunch of people desperate to pay to do a PhD. Some of them aspire, realistically or otherwise, to academic careers (I’d be moderately interested to know what proportion of holders of self-funded PhDs actually get permanent academic positions.) Others have no aspiration to get an academic job: many cases involve someone who found a particular topic of interest (whether during a undergraduate degree or afterwards) which they want to write into a PhD; in a not insignificant number of cases this is a project carried out in retirement.

    There’s probably a fascinating ethnography to be done of self-funded PhD students (as indeed there is of many groups within academia). I fail to understand why anyone would pay a university to do this kind of work. And Robin, if you’re reading, I’d be very interested in reading more about your motivations to do a self-funded PhD, and what you hope it will lead to. Not least because resolving, or even improving, the situation we’re in is not going to happen without confronting the empirical observation that for a great many people the desire to do a PhD is strong enough not only to do so unfunded, but also to pay to do so: as such getting a sense of the range of different motivations to undertake doctoral study would be helpful.

    One option (I don’t know if I’d be in favour of it, but it’s one that occurs to me) would be for two different ‘tracks’ of PhD programme: one a ‘terminal’ PhD, for whom the doctorate is intended to be its recipient’s crowning achievement in academia (I’d say effectively a vanity project, if only that didn’t sound so disparaging); the other I don’t want to call ‘professional’ because it implies more or less the opposite of what I mean, but one that potentially leads on to an academic career. Only the former could be self-funded, while the latter would be fully funded, ideally more generously than the RCUK rates (have these kept up with inflation? £14k doesn’t strike me as the real-terms equivalent of £12k (outside London) when I started mine in 2005), and including pension contributions and other similar benefits.

    There’s a bunch more to be written about unversities’ institutional incentives and motivations in this, but I’ll leave that for now, not least in case this turns out to be the last word in the conversation.

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