Teaching on the cheap: UCL’s exploitation of teaching assistants revealed

A UCLU report, released this past week, has laid bare the unfair and exploitative conditions postgraduate teaching assistants (PGTA) experience A startling gender pay gap has also been revealed, along with a big difference between the pay package of international PGTAs and that of their British counterparts.

Low Pay

UCLU estimates that PGTAs receive an average of £14.68, which is drastically less than other universities such as Queen Mary’s, who pay £73 per lecture, and University of East Anglia, who pay £54 per lecture. Salary also varies between UCL departments, depending on how cash rich they are. The School of Management is at the highest end, paying £20 an hour, whilst the School of European Languages pays only £13 an hour.

What’s more, the amount of work demanded of PGTAs normally exceeds the hours for which they are paid. The average PGTA will work an extra 3.h hours’ unpaid overtime in order to complete tasks such as marking, preparation and feedback. As a result, some departments’ PGTAs take home a real pay of under the minimum wage. A third of PGTAs take home less than the London Living Wage, of which almost half are women. Those working at the School of European Languages receive a paltry £5 an hour.

This is in breach of UCL’s HR policy on maximum teaching hours, which states that teaching assistants must be paid ‘for contact hours and such time as is necessary for preparation of teaching material and assessment of work’.

One PGTA said that, “If I only ‘worked to rule’ on the amount of hours I was paid to prepare for seminars, I would not be able to prepare them adequately and most of my time would be spent doing admin or giving feedback on written work.”

The dispute over pay also reveals how little respect PGTAs command. One teaching assistant told of how they were reduced to the department’s butler, pouring wine at the department’s postgraduate party for £12.14 an hour.

Gender & international gap

UCLU identified that the pay gap between male and female PGTAs was 22%, with men on average taking home £16.36 per hour, whilst women pocketed £13.23 hourly. Women also work a higher percentage of unpaid hours, working 33.4% of their hours unpaid, compared to men who worked 27% of their hours unpaid. As such, if one accounts for unpaid hours, men are paid £11.88 per hour and women are paid £8.85, below the London Living Wage.

Furthermore, there exists a gap between what is paid to international students and British students, with teaching assistants from abroad earning 15% less. Disillusionment with unequal and low pay lead some to abandon the idea of a career in academia all together.

Opaque hiring processes

Often, when trying to find a PGTA job at UCL, it is about who you know rather than what you know. Respondents to a PGTA survey stated that the recruitment of TAs is both ‘lacking in transparency’ and ‘unfair.’ UCL’s HR policy states that PGTAs must be chosen in line with the Recruitment and Selection policy, which mandates: a job description, applications made with a CV, an interview panel, and shortlisting. Yet many of these requirements are ignored, which leads to disparities between departments and a lack of clarity on the criteria used to choose a candidate.

Furthermore, all PGTA vacancies are supposed to be published in advance on the central recruitment portal. But, as to be expected from the university that brought you bello-gate, UCL has yet to master its IT systems. The portal is currently broken and so jobs cannot be advertised on the system. Yet, even before the IT issues, jobs would rarely be widely circulated. 41.6% of those who were asked why they did not work as a teaching assistant stated that they had not seen any opportunities advertised in their department, and 36.5% said that they felt that there was a lack of posts.

Again, hiring fluctuates so drastically between departments due to a complete lack of central oversight.

Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer, Mark Crawford, on releasing the report blasted the university, saying “UCL almost uniquely underperforms in its treatment of postgrads who teach – even by the poor standards of the sector.”

The Provost, Michael Arthur, declared that the findings were “horrendous”, whilst the Director of HR signaled his intent to implement urgent action. Yet, amid the maelstrom of budget cuts and rising student numbers, the nature of these actions remain to be seen.

Thasmia Khan