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ayane hida

postgraduate education

The Future of our PhD Associate Tutors is in UEA's hands

The future treatment of UEA's PhD Associate Tutors is in the University's hands. Will they do what's right?

After a steady drip of complaints having made their way to the SU across the years, the Postgraduate Committee have this year steered me to focus my efforts on launching a piece of research into the experience of our PhD Associate Tutors (ATs). Thanks to the work of my predecessor, we already knew some of the issues that our ATs continue to face and had brought them to the University’s attention. In light of little movement since then, it seemed a full review was needed, and today I’d like to share our findings with you as well as our plans for the future.

Why is it so important to regulate and support our ATs? 

To be blunt, we are in a world of HE where the majority of academics live between temporary contracts, have reduced employment rights, and are undervalued. If we don't deal with the issue at PhD level, we are planting the seed for dire workers’ rights throughout the entire academic career of our students. You can tell a lot about an institution by how they treat people at the 'bottom' of the chain, and I don’t believe that UEA is doing enough to support the future development of our Associate Tutors.

Teaching during your PhD is a fantastic opportunity, and often required if you want a future in academics. It can however become far from fantastic if you’re not supported, and your hours are not regulated - a dangerous game to play with such high levels of mental health problems in postgraduates already!

We need to be fighting for diversity in our academic staff, and fighting the white and male dominance in academia. The concerning lack of open and transparent advertising of teaching opportunities for PhD students means no equality and diversity checks, something which is vital to any institution’s management. In systems where teaching opportunities are based on your relationship with your supervisor, or who you know in the faculty, unconscious bias means certain students will be shut out of academia due to never having gained teaching experience at PhD level. 

These students both teach our undergraduates and mark their work. They want to provide the best possible teaching, but this isn't possible if they are not given the ability to! This could very well have an impact on our undergraduates too, as students would perhaps be discouraged from taking on an AT role later in their academic career if their own tutors are not representative of the diversity we celebrate and encourage here at UEA.

What were the findings of our report?

Recruitment and selection process

Even in the initial stages of recruitment, our research showed a distinct lack of standardised application process for those wishing to become an AT. Overall, 58% of students were notified about positions through email bulletins, however others heard from word of mouth or through their supervisors, something which was widely regarded as more of a job offer as opposed to being merely an invitation to express their interest in the role should an opportunity arise. Accessibility and encouragement to take up AT openings varied widely between students, and with 77% believing there to be no formal application process the scheme opens itself up to being largely biased in favour of those students approached directly by a member of staff.

Once selected for an Associate Tutor role, a worrying 21% of students said that they received their contract either very close to the start of, or after the beginning of term. Despite the UEA’s policy on Postgraduate Research Student employment in teaching having strict guidelines on laying out hours and pay, students told us that hours were often changeable and confusing, with newly-introduced fixed-hour contracts not being adhered to as well as being highly inflexible in periods of high workload such as marking. AT contracts are also issued on a temporary basis, with one student saying that the ‘volatile work’ was unsuitable for those wishing to gain solid qualifications and experience.

Our research also highlighted the concern that some Associate Tutors are unknowingly working illegally, with right-to-work forms not being regularly updated and checked. Again, this seems to be consequential of a lack of any centralised system, something which needs to be tightened if conditions are to improve.

Our overall recommendations for the recruitment and selection process of ATs were heavily focused upon this need for a centralised process, from the advertisement of positions through each school’s mailing system to the development of a structured application process to be used by all schools recruiting ATs. We also recommend that all ATs must receive a contract at least 2 weeks prior to their start date, and that there should be a new, clear policy on collation of right-to-work and other legal documents.

Training and preparation

Although the percentage of people having not received training has dropped by 8% since the 2013 PRES, 21% of respondents still answered that they received no training for their role, with a further 17% saying that they were trained after having started work. The highest percentage by school was DEV, with 36% receiving either ‘on the job’ training or none at all.

For those who did receive training, requirements and experiences were varied. Some were offered PPD or CSED courses but a lot of these were brief and some respondents did not feel adequately informed regarding marking standards or technique. Some students were not required to attend training at all due to having previous teaching experience, which could result in a lack of consistency in terms of both teaching and marking. Training was also inconsistent, with neither of the aforementioned courses being mandatory and often being given too formally to be classed by ATs as effective training.

From our report, we have recommended that UEA create a mandatory training provision for all ATs, with those having one of more years of experience able to help train and support others in their school. We also recommend that schools consider running specialised training based on the nature of their Associate Tutors’ work and their overall needs.

Recognition and support

During our research project, we spoke to ATs about the recognition (in terms of pay) that they receive for extra hours spent marking students’ work, and found a correlation between those tutors having received a contract and those who were remunerated for time spent marking. Of those who do receive payment recognition, only 3% had not received a contract, whereas of those tutors who do not receive recognition, this jumped to 13% having never received a contract. This figure was highest in the AMA and DEV schools, with 32% of Associate Tutors not being paid for additional time spent marking, with one AMA respondent noting that some tutors are paid the same to mark scores of essays as those with only a handful, as the work is dependent on the nature of each module. 

Overall, there seemed to be a lot of confusion surrounding how much time ATs are expected to spend on preparation and marking, seeing as they are in many cases not paid for the work. One comment also highlighted the extremely informal nature of payment, saying that covering shifts between PPL tutors is often settled cash-in-hand. 

Staff support for ATs also seemed unsatisfactory. Many tutors felt they did not feel part of the community of staff in their school, despite the fact that they played an integral role in teaching. From the comments we received, one student said that staff ‘ensure you feel well below them’ and others noted that they received no constructive feedback in their time as an AT. Supervisor support tended to vary also; those who were recommended to the job by their supervisor were likely to receive much more active support and feedback. Of those who had been observed by staff during their AT work, many did find it useful, however opportunities for this as well as peer observation were again inconsistent.   

One student said that they approached their supervisor and were invited to help them, which is perhaps indicative of the strain placed upon schools to deliver UG courses. With more students arriving in the face of an already inadequate training and support system, we are concerned that this will further impact the mental health of our PhD ATs, something which is already a major concern within the Postgraduate community.

Finally, we looked at Union support. According to UEA’s guidance document for Associate Tutors, all PhD students who teach should be made aware of their right to join a Union, however this seemed not to be the case among our ATs. None of the participants we spoke to from CHE, AMA and DEV had been introduced to this right, despite uea|su knowing that UCU are keen for higher levels of AT involvement.

In our final list of recommendations, we highly encourage that all AT contracts detail hours inclusive of expected time spent on preparation and marking, and that situations such as shift covering are also made clear in writing in in the tutor’s contract. Each school should have an induction period whereby ATs are encourage to integrate into the staff community, and supervisors must be made formally aware of their roles and responsibilities to ensure that students get the support they need. We also recommend that UEA investigate cases where ATs are relied on to fulfil teaching needs, and assess this with consideration for the planned increase in UG student numbers next year. Support should also extend to the creation of a formalised system for observation and mandatory meetings with the relevant module organiser to give a better evaluation and useful feedback to tutors, and we would also like to see UEA develop a stronger link with UCU and appoint AT UCU representatives for each school (as is already in place in LDC).

If you’d like more information, the full report can be found here.

What are we doing about it?

The full report has already been taken to the Student Experience Committee and the PVC has said that he will coordinate a reply to all of our recommendations. I sincerely hope that the University resource this issue properly, and show that they value everything that our PhD students do by responding to our research.

We look forward to the University’s response and feel that the most effective way for them to fulfil all recommendations is for them to 'map' out their entire process for handling PhD AT work from its source.

The treatment of ATs has been an ongoing concern in the PG community, and I’m afraid that the longer it takes to see progress, the more likely it is that our PhD students lose faith that we can evoke change, with our efforts culminating in nothing more than ATs simply giving up with flagging systemic problems in the University. I hope that in the light of this new research, the University can be proactive and dedicate the staff to getting into the roots of this HR issue.

UEA need to be bold enough to inform these students what their employment rights are, and form closer links with UCU. If you run an effective HR system and treat your workers well, you have nothing to fear of them knowing their rights.

For more information, see the UCU postgraduate employment charter




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