Iam a PhD student with publications ready to go and excellent feedback from my students. I am on track to finish within the time stipulated by my funding. So why do I feel like giving it all up? Because the reality of teaching in a university is becoming less and less appealing.
A major issue, before we even get to pay and working conditions, is the question of how teaching is allocated. The potential for institutional gender and race discrimination is immense. Most institutions operate on an entrenched system of direct patronage to determine teaching allocation – those who fit in get more of the “right kind” of teaching than those who don’t.
I have experienced this first-hand. In my first year I was offered just one class, while my male colleagues had, on average, three or four seminar groups. When I pointed this out to my head of department, I received a terrifying email suggesting that I had transgressed by contacting them, and that I was lucky to receive any offer of teaching at all.
This was followed up by a disciplinary meeting with my academic adviser, which surprised me because it had nothing to do with my research. I was told that I would receive no classes the next year. Ironically enough, last-minute staff changes meant that I was offered several courses and I now have a very heavy workload.
The pressure is enormous. I deliver four seminars a week, on the same course, for about £14 an hour. I get paid for one hour to prepare the seminar, and for each seminar, so that’s five hours.
I also do a lot of marking, for which I receive a lump sum that equates to one hour per student. That means I have 60 minutes to mark four short essays and one long essay for each student. That’s 7.5 minutes for each assignment, to leave 30 minutes for each 3,000-word essay. I also get paid for “student contact” (replying to emails and attending meetings), but this is calculated as five hours for the term – that’s about 12 minutes per student, over three months.
Most of the students I teach are in their first term of university. They, of course, need much more than 12 minutes of my time over three months. And it often takes me far longer than 7.5 minutes to simply work out what it is they are driving at in their submitted work, before I can even begin to provide useful feedback.
None of this accounts for the 20 hours of unpaid compulsory training I have to attend each year, as well as marking meetings and two lectures a week, which is expected of all teachers who are delivering a course for the first time.
Sometimes I am teaching topics that I have never studied. In these weeks, providing my students with a good seminar takes considerably more than one hour to prepare. In order to do my job to a basic level of acceptability – never mind the “excellence” of the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef) – my £14 an hour ends up as more like £5 an hour.
I care about my students and I want to do a good job. I am not all that distant from my own undergraduate experiences and I remember what a difficult adjustment it can be. I went from a state school to an Oxbridge college and had to spend an enormous amount of time and effort on simply catching up with my privately educated peers.
Even if I wasn’t this conscientious, I would still have the constant pressure of student feedback, faculty review and the ever-present concern about getting a good reference for future jobs.
The government is intent on pushing for a competitive marketised system, in which measures like the Tef will assess teaching according to student (customer) feedback and graduate earnings data. This will inevitably have consequences for those caught up in the delivery of these services, and teachers will face even greater scrutiny and pressure.
With the rise of postgraduates and the decline of permanent positions, entering academia is becoming more of a struggle than it ever has been. We know this and our employers know it too. Alongside publications, teaching experience is vital for a successful CV. Our employment is entirely at their discretion and absolutely vital to our careers.
And this, I suppose, is the basis of any truly profitable market place: absolute exploitation.