Quick-fix academics take the strain

Graduate teaching assistants are helping universities cope with growing student numbers. But Stephen Pritchard wonders if they're cheap labour
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THESE days grants for postgraduate research are thin on the ground, especially in the arts and humanities. At the same time, universities have a constant demand for part-time teachers to support their lecturing staff and cater for the growing number of students. And would-be lecturers need training and experience before they can find a job.

To cope with these developments, universities have come up with a special scheme that aims to ease the situation. This takes the form of graduate teaching assistants - research students who are contracted to carry out teaching. They are trained and supported, and often receive better pay than their colleagues on research council studentships.

Neil Stewart is one such. He is in the first year of his PhD in psychology at Warwick University. At the same time, he works as a graduate teaching assistant. The post involves 150 hours a year teaching on the psychology department's undergraduate practicals. In return, he has four years, not the usual three, in which to complete his doctoral work.

Warwick was one of the first universities to introduce teaching assistants. The scheme, research students say, is preferable to the ad hoc teaching that most PhD students carry out at some point during their degrees.

The teaching assistants' responsibilities, including the courses they cover and the number of working hours, are set out in advance. They also have support from the department with one or more academic supervisors monitoring their progress towards a PhD, while a separate academic acts as a mentor for their teaching.

But, according to the National Postgraduate Committee, there have been complaints on two fronts from teaching assistants at some universities. Teaching can take priority over research unless there are proper guidelines for the workload, and preferably a written contract. Some assistantships last for only three years, which is not long enough for the researcher to complete a doctoral thesis on what is, effectively, a part-time basis.

Even where teaching is formalised, there are times when teaching and research commitments come into conflict. "It is understood that I am here to do my PhD as well as teach," says Mr Stewart. "I am quite good at time management, but sometimes it is hard to balance the two."

Coventry University operates a similar programme, where graduates are known as tutorial assistants. The principle aim of the scheme is to prepare graduates for a career as university teachers, but it also gives the chance for postgraduate study.

According to Rita Adams, employment manager, Coventry introduced the programme in 1994 to tackle a "chicken and egg situation". "There were a lot of potential staff who had much to offer in a teaching career, but did not have the experience," she says.

Although assistants provide a valuable route into postgraduate study, the teaching unions have reservations about the students' dual role. There is concern that they might just be a pool of cheap labour. However, union officials agree that assistants are preferable to casual teaching by research students. Often, it is not covered by a contract, and there might be no commitment to training.

"The advantage is that teaching assistants receive contracts," says Ewan Gillon, of the Association of University Teachers. The AUT believes support and the right sort of contract is vital, to protect the interests of both research students and undergraduates.

Graduate teaching assistants are likely to be tomorrow's dons, so support at this stage will pay dividends later. "If you are going to employ postgraduate teachers, it is important to give them proper contracts and the support to do it properly," says Mr Stewart.