Hey, are you a lecturer or a student?

Universities rely on postgraduate assistants to help the dons, but are they training them well enough?
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Profound changes in British higher education are revealed in a new study which shows that postgraduates are an indispensable part of the teaching force at almost all universities. Without them, universities would grind to a halt, lecturers would be run off their feet, research just wouldn't get done and students would go untaught.

Britain has taken the American route. Students are now taught routinely by other students a few years older than themselves, according to the survey undertaken by the UK Council for Graduate Education. The phenomenon is a result of the expansion in higher education. How else could the system have absorbed a big increase in the student population without a commensurate increase in funding? The result is that, although students choose a university course partly based on the institution's glittering academics and their cutting-edge research, they may never get to see these stars. Instead, they may have to make do with poorly-paid graduate assistants.

These graduate assistants are expected to perform a wide range of tasks which require considerable skill and self-confidence - taking tutorials and seminars; demonstrating in science laboratories; marking lab reports and essays and, occasionally, exams. In addition, they may have to undertake more demanding jobs - supervising projects, teaching on field courses and on masters degrees. Sometimes they might even have to deliver a lecture or advise on the design of courses or modules or in the setting of exam questions.

But are universities preparing postgraduates for the teaching they are expected to do? The answer, according to the survey, is that almost all higher education institutions (93 per cent) have some kind of professional development for teaching assistants. Only 6 per cent - seven institutions - have nothing, and two of those seven employed no teaching assistants.

But the training courses vary. Some are only half a day, others are as long as nine days. They also vary in status. Some universities attach more importance to them than others. Some make them mandatory for all assistants; for others they are voluntary.

A university quoted in the report - Hull - introduced compulsory training for all PhD students in the 1990s and appointed its first cohort of 30 graduate teaching assistants. These were graduates on three-year contracts working on PhDs while teaching up to six hours a week in their departments - that is 180 hours a year.

One of the reasons for Hull's decision was financial. Aspiring doctoral researchers have increasingly found it difficult to secure grants for their work. Apart from those researching in the sciences, the majority of postgraduates fund themselves in whole or in part. Even a first-class degree is no guarantee of money. But with a contract to teach undergraduates, PhD students can earn the equivalent of a research council stipend - or more. The money is not riches. Far from it. And it varies a good deal between subjects and between universities. Employers can, therefore, choose what to pay, which exposes postgraduates to the risk of being exploited.

According to Professor Howard Green, the new chairman of the UK Council for Graduate Education and head of research development at Leeds Metropolitan University, teaching assistants on full-time contracts earn around pounds 10,000 a year.

The benefits for the postgraduates are not simply financial. In a 1996 survey, carried out by the National Postgraduate Committee in conjunction with the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students, the majority of postgraduates said that they undertook teaching because they wanted the experience. Decorating their CV, particularly to prepare for an academic career, was more important than the money.

That's why graduate teaching assistants put more time than their contracts specify into their teaching. Many universities say that full-time students should undertake no more than six hours teaching a week. There is confusion, however, about whether this includes preparation and marking. In its survey, the National Postgraduate Committee found that some postgraduates were spending up to 11 hours a week on teaching duties during term time - almost double that recommended - and that had an effect on the length of time it took them to complete their degrees.

The benefits to universities and colleges of preparing PhD students to teach are clear. Undergraduates do better as a result - and many positively like it. Also, departments perform better in teaching quality assessments. But the new survey concludes that not enough is being done. Universities are still not giving enough status to teaching compared with research. The report recommends that preparation for teaching and learning be integrated into the research student's programme of study.

"It's really important for people in higher education to get the experience of teaching and to get it in a systematic way, not just learn it off the seat of their pants," says Dr Vaneeta D'Andrea, director of educational development, policy and standards at Roehampton Institute, London.

"Engaging graduate students in the process of learning how to do research, how to teach, and how to become members of administrative panels is important. It's important for people to learn the whole job, before they get on the job."

`Preparing Postgraduates to Teach in Higher Education', UK Council for Graduate Education, c/o Cedar, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL

e-mail: l.hodges@independent.co.uk


SARAH PARK-DWYER, 32, did a PhD in biology at the University of East Anglia and was taught how to teach undergraduates on a UEA course lasting up to six weeks. It was run in the afternoons to allow the postgraduates to get on with their own research.

"I found my training invaluable. One of the biggest things you have to build is your self-confidence. Although PhD students are knowledgeable, it can be quite difficult to communicate that to someone else. You're so immersed in your own work you have your own terminology, so you're talking your own language. The training enabled me to stand up in front of 20 people and talk.

"It's very important that all PhD students be taught to teach so lecturing standards are kept up. More students are having to pay their own way, they must value for money, that means a certain standard guaranteed.

"I found it difficult to know how to pitch the teaching. You're not a lecturer and the students know you're not. You're still a student, though maybe four or five years on. You have to work out how much to be their mate and how much to be the teacher. The training made you aware of that."