Precarious- ness and the university

Posted on March 6, 2011


Revolutionaries in Tahrir Square | Hossam el-Hamalawy

As the cuts in higher education start to be felt, PhD students in the School of Geography, University of Leeds are making plans and getting organised.

Hourly paid postgraduate teaching assistants at the School of Geography, University of Leeds, have been informed that that their wages are to be cut by half, as university departments seek to trim their budgets in response to the removal of government funding for higher education.

Previously, teaching assistants (TAs) could claim separately for time spent on marking and preparation, in addition to the actual time spent teaching itself. Now TAs may only claim for their teaching hours at a rate of £14.10 an hour. Assuming that an hour of teaching requires only an hour of preparation, then the new rate of pay is just over the minimum wage at £7.05 an hour. In reality, it often requires at least three hours preparation, equating to much less than the minimum wage. Never mind marking.

As precarious workers with little effective union protection, we are especially vulnerable to these sort of unilateral attacks on wages, terms and conditions. We are clearly viewed as an easy target by those within the universities whose job it is to decide who will bear the brunt of the current education cuts. No doubt we, like all the unpaid interns trying to break into jobs market, are supposed to be grateful that we are offered the opportunity to labour for peanuts on the grounds that we are investing in our future careers and may one day be offered one of the few remaining permanent jobs that haven’t been culled as an offering to the gods of fiscal responsibility.

Postgraduate teaching staff across the UK (and beyond) need to get organised. We need to be in a better position to resist such attacks. Yet there is currently a lack of accessible information or communication about how working conditions and rates of pay differ between departments and institutions. Getting clued up about the conditions within which this work is carried out is an important first step. To this end, members of Leeds-based group the Really Open University are currently in talks with the University of Leeds Students’ Union about possibility of the latter carrying out a survey of postgraduate teaching work across the University.

In the mean time, we want to start talking to other postgraduate teaching staff. Are you a research postgraduate engaged in teaching and/or marking at a university? If so, we would love to hear from you about your working conditions, rates of pay, and whether these have been suffered as a result of the cuts. Drop us an email at this address:

Posted in: 2. Ed Zero