Education / Research Posts: Too much, too young?: Casual teaching taken on by postgraduates can hamper their research work. Stephen Pritchard describes efforts to formalise the situation

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Research students have always carried out a large share of teaching in universities, but it can cause problems. At worst, postgraduates find their doctoral work suffering and undergraduates receive substandard teaching.

With departments under pressure to improve their PhD submission rates, and with higher undergraduate numbers raising the demand for casual teaching, some universities believe that teaching by postgraduates needs a more formal structure to guarantee quality and to minimise the negative impact on research.

This has been welcomed by students' unions and by the National Postgraduate Committee, the representative organisation for graduate students, which sees proper training, payment and support as vital if research students are to avoid being exploited as cheap labour. The NPC's Guidelines for the Employment of Postgraduate Students as Teachers suggests a ceiling of 180 teaching hours per year, including preparation and marking, per student.

Reconciling the demands of teaching and a thesis is often a research student's most difficult task. 'It becomes problematic because it is not a tightly defined job,' explains Jane, who has just written up her thesis at the Department of Independent Studies at Lancaster University. 'Teaching can expand and it can be difficult to keep it within the hours you are paid for it. There are times when there is a lot of marking, for example.'

Jane would often put her teaching duties first, because they were timetabled commitments. 'Teaching's demands tend to be more in front of you,' she says.

Chris, now a history postgraduate at Sheffield University, says: 'When you are running a course, there is a lot of paperwork. I don't think that many departments realise the quantity of background work, for which salaried staff have support.'

Turning down work can also be awkward. 'For most postgraduates, it is their supervisor who is asking them to teach. It's imperative to keep a good relationship with your supervisor, so you need a strong personality to say 'no' to that.'

At present, postgraduates should be paid pounds 13.60 per hour for casual teaching, but the real rate varies from institution to institution.

Some will allow time for marking and preparation, while others pay only for 'contact time' spent with students. In universities that do operate an upper limit on teaching commitments, some students will ignore it, for example by teaching at a different university. 'The teaching money is useful,' says Chris. 'It is quite a big chunk of disposable income; that creates pressures for people to evade the rules.'

Many of the problems identified by research students stem from the informal nature of their teaching work. One way to structure it is by employing postgraduates as teaching assistants. The researcher is hired to teach a fixed number of hours, and registers for a doctorate at the institution.

Although they are members of staff, their research commitments are safeguarded. It also ensures that they receive instruction in teaching methods.

Warwick University has 30 research students funded by their departments as teaching assistants. Their pay after tax is roughly in line with a postgraduate grant. They teach 150 hours per year without extra payment, but have access to the same facilities as lecturers, including an office.

According to Professor Bob Burgess, chairman of Warwick's graduate school, the training teaching assistants receive is vital. 'It is very unfair to expect somebody to go out and teach without having trained them, just as it would be highly dangerous to learn to drive without driving lessons,' he warns. 'People must have support.'

At Warwick this includes a system of mentors, separate from the students' PhD supervision, to provide advice on teaching problems, and a regular teaching forum which brings together postgraduates and staff.

Kirsteen, who is reading for an MSc in civil engineering at Warwick, has found that a teaching assistant's post offers a number of advantages.

'You get a touch more respect from staff,' she says. 'Other postgraduates are not getting as much back-up from staff and technicians.' Teaching has also helped her own understanding of engineering. 'It teaches you to look at things from a different perspective, and shows how different people see the subject.'

Cheryl, a PhD student in the Department of Independent Studies at Lancaster, finds that tutoring helps to combat the isolation of a researcher's work. She found her department's training programme a valuable preparation for taking seminars, and agrees that proper preparation for teaching reduces its impact on her research.

'There are sets of skills you need in order to do good tutoring. There's an assumption that if you're researching an area, you can just walk in front of people and impart that knowledge. But as a postgraduate, you could be someone who graduated just a few months before. You have to learn new skills sharpish.'

Academics such as Professor Burgess feel that it is essential to challenge assumptions about a researcher's innate ability to teach, if quality is to be maintained in higher education. 'It is very important that graduates receive a systematic training,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)