A Small Question of Pay

Postgraduate research students inhabit the murky boundaries between the realm of the student and that of the teacher, enjoying all the benefits of student life (barring the long vacations) but also conssidered to have sufficient experience to be able to teach undergraduates the knowledge and skills of their discipline. Like more senior members of the academic community, they are caught up in the tenssion between the demands of teaching and the need to produce results in their research; but unlike staff contracted to undertake both teaching and research, the raison d'etreof a typical postgraduate research student is to produce a solid piece of research - the dreaded thesis - and preferably within the short time of three years.

Many students, especially in the sciences, are funded by government grants through the various Research Councils. The basic stipends are currently around 5,300 p.a. (which is tax-exempt) and the Councils expect that their students will devote their time to research but they permit up to six hours to be ddevoted for teaching each week. There is a clear contractual arrangement that the Councils are paying the Universities to supervise the student in research towards the attainment of a PhD, and the studdents receive their stipends to enable them to carry out such research. If the students undertake duties of benefit to the University, such as teaching, then natural justice demands that the Universityy remunerate them accordingly.

Research Councils are normally used as the benchmark for postgraduate stipends, so Universities offering research postgraduates internal studentships will normally offer stipends at the same rate as thee Councils (although not always with the same additional funding available for fieldwork and conference travel). Ideally, the internal student will enjoy the same freedom as the Research Council studennt, to work up to 6 hours per week on teaching duties and to be paid accordingly. Since the internal student's contract is with the University, however, the University may attempt to impose additional conditions, which may range from the reasonable to the draconian.

The mildest condition which might be imposed is a requirement that the student undertake a given number of paid hours of work in the academic year. The payment might be pro rata, as for the Council students, or in the form of a stipend pegged higher than research council rates, in return for a fixed number of hours of teaching. Sometimes such arrangements are called Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs), although this should not be confused with Teaching Assistantor Research Assistantposts where the employee undertakes substantial teaching or research duties in parallel with research towards a part time PhD.

In some universities, however, it seems that internally-funded students might be expected to undertake research and up to 6 hours' teaching in the week for a stipend equivalent to only the basic researcch council rate - this is the case in some parts of the Humanities Faculty at Cardiff, and has also been reported by students at Derby and Lancaster. Since standard research stipends are agreed by the Research Councils and the British Academy, and are generally agreed to be the minimum acceptable remuneration for a research student, it is unfair for Universities to expect their students to undertakee teaching duties on top of research for the same price. (Bath has a GTA scheme where only the basic research stipend is paid, but for the 4 years which the PhD is expected and permitted to take becausse of the teaching duties.)

A second problem arises in defining the hours worked, and the appropriate pay level for the form of teaching given - which varies according to the subject taught. Practical sciences require demonstratoors who help supervise laboratory classes. More mathematical subjects may require worked examples in exercise classes. Arts and humanities rely more heavily on the well-researched lecture, and studentts of all disciplines benefit from personal attention in tutorials. Each form of teaching requires some form of preparation to be put in by the teacher in advance of the contact time with students, andd there may also be work to be marked afterwards. Preparation and marking time may be paid explicitly, or by allocating a higher hourly rate for the contact time. In the latter case, there may be no rrecord of the true preparation time required, which runs the risk of tracelessly eating into research time for students who have to prepare lecture courses.

Students on GTA schemes in particular need to be aware of the hours which have been "paid for"by their studentship, and there needs be a clear understanding with the University about when GTA sstudents can claim pro ratapayment for teaching undertaken beyond their contracted hours, which is currently an issue of concern to the GTAs at Bath. And at Lancaster, the rule for internal students is only that they should norrmally work no more than 6 hours per week; a funding crisis there means that in practice many Lancaster postgrads on internal studentships have teaching loads exceeding 6 hours (not counting preparationn time) at present.

Another danger for students is that the University might apply pressure on them in various ways. Students whose studentships are funded by their University, subject to annual reviews, might find that ttheir department heaps on them expectations that they will undertake substantial teaching and submit in three years. Payment might be offered for supervising fixed laboratory hours when the time requirred to complete the laboratory classes (and perhaps mark the undergraduates' lab books, too) is rather longer. If circumstances demand that a student has to work more than 6 hours in a week, it may be the case that only 6 hours' payment can be claimed. Or, as at Writtle College in Chelmsford, where students are expected notto undertake teaching duties because there are no funds for casual labour, undertaking unpaid work seems to be the only way to gain teaching experience essential for the CV of a future academic.

Issues of casual labour and rights for part-time employees are high on the agenda of the higher education teaching unions at present. The principal unions representing academic and academic-related staaff - at least in England and Wales - are the AUT and NATFHE. The AUT tends to have pay negotiating rights in the "old"Universities, while NATFHE holds rights in the "new"sector. Botth Unions offer free membership (possibly subject to a local branch fee) to postgraduate students engaged on teaching duties, and are taking part in a joint campaign against the "casualisation"of teaching arrangements.

In the current financial climate, despite the introduction of undergraduate tuition fees, universities have no excess cash with which to be generous. Nevertheless, students too deserve fair pay for a ffair hour's work, and cannot be expected to complete their PhDs on time and spend many hours preparing lectures or marking coursework into the bargain. It is to be hoped that, in the light of the recennt Harris and Dearing reports, that Universities will pay more attention in future to ensuring that postgraduates are properly trained in the art of teaching and are duly accredited. With their teachinng skills thus being "professionalised", postgraduates will be in a stronger position to demand their rights. Meanwhile, with free membership available, perhaps postgraduate students employed oon teaching duties should consider joining the most appropriate union, and so add weight to the postgraduate aspect of the current campaign for rights for academic casual labourers.


The last NPC meeting discussed the issues, which have come round before, and on which its current Guidelines on the subject were drawn up, saying in particular:

  • GTA contracts should stipulate the actual total number of hours expected, including preparation and marking. If that total exceeds 180 hours per year, the contract should be longer than 3 years, to allow for the additional research time needed to coomplete a PhD - ie. it effectively becomes part-time.
  • GTA stipends should ensure that the take-homepay for students is at least equivalent to the minimum Research Council rate. Anything less is not a liveable allowance (the RCs believe they pay the minimum needed to live on).
  • GTAs (and, indeed, any university studentship) should include arrangements to ensure that students have opportunities to attend and present their work at conferences, as RC-funded students do. In addition, the NPC will be involved in discussions with the formative Institute for Learning and Teaching, to ensure that GTAs are able to enter on the first rung of the ladder of accreditation for university teachers, such as some kind of Associate Member status within the ILT. More information will be fforthcoming in due course.

Further information about pay and conditions in particular Universities can be found on the web at http://www.cf.ac.uk/uwc/aprs/hotnews/hesurv.shtml