Standing in for the prof

While experienced academics are busy trying to gain research points, postgraduates are taking on their teaching workload. Maureen O'Connor reports
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The Independent Online
In the relatively cloistered universities which existed before the massive expansion of the past decade, there were students, graduate students, lecturers and professors. Undergraduates may not have been naive enough to believe that they would all be taught by the likes of the globe-trotting and internationally famous Professor Maurice Zapp, of David Lodge's comedy, but on the whole they made a fairly clear distinction between teachers and the taught.

That distinction is becoming more blurred as cash-strapped universities increasingly turn to postgraduate students for teaching services. Two major pressures drive them on: the need to meet the demands of the rising undergraduate population and the demand for tenured staff to publish more and more high-quality research so that departments can hold their own in the Research Assessment Exercise, upon which funding depends.

What started mainly as postgraduate laboratory supervision in science departments has extended in many universities to include tutorial and seminar teaching right across departments in sciences and social sciences and the humanities, and even, occasionally, to lectures to hundreds of students at a time.

This is part of the Americanisation of British university education, says Professor Joe Foweraker of Essex University's department of government, and no bad thing. He believes that students, both postgraduate and undergraduate, can benefit from the new arrangements being introduced for teaching.

Postgraduates, he says, gain income and teaching experience which help them in their careers, and become better integrated into the life of their academic departments. Undergraduates are able to be taught in small groups, which would be too expensive if it could be offered only by tenured staff.

Dr Tom Korner, a mathematician at Trinity Hall, says that at Cambridge postgraduate teaching is not forced on the university by financial constraints as much as by its long-standing commitment to intensive tuition. "Lectures in mathematics are given by tenured members of staff, but we offer twice- weekly tutorials to pairs of undergraduates - and that can only be done with help from postgraduates. Here it is hallowed by tradition."

Others, not least graduate students themselves, have reservations. When the Association of University Teachers got together with the National Union of Students and the National Postgraduate Committee to survey the use of postgraduate teachers, they concluded that "the unqualified were being over-used and misused".

Financial pressure on postgraduates works in two directions, the survey suggested. While the postgraduate student population has increased, the number of full grants for PhD work has not, so an increasing number of students are seeking other means of financial support while they work for their higher degrees. At the same time, the rise in undergraduate numbers at lower unit cost, plus increasing pressure to publish to meet research assessment demands, means that some university departments have too much teaching work for the established staff to cope with.

In theory this should be a classic case of demand meeting supply, and many postgraduates say that they welcome the opportunity to teach as "apprentices", as a step towards an academic career. But there were, the survey found, three major areas of concern. First, that postgraduates might damage their own research by spending too much of their time on teaching duties. Second, that undergraduates might suffer by being taught by unqualified staff. And third, that the establishment of a poorly paid cohort of insecure apprentices might threaten the pay and conditions of tenured university staff.

The survey found that 18 per cent of postgraduates surveyed were teaching because it was a compulsory part of their contract. They were mainly students on university bursaries, or those employed as graduate teaching assistants, arrangements which combine teaching duties and research.

The rest were teaching because they needed the extra money to survive during their three or four years of PhD work, although 80 per cent of these students also said that they welcomed the opportunity to gain teaching experience.

Taking into account the general rule that an hour's teaching at undergraduate level implies two or three hours' preparation and marking, pay rates for postgraduate teachers are very low. The minority on salaries earn on average pounds 6,000 a year, which works out at around pounds 19 per hour of teaching time. The majority, undertaking a few hours' teaching a week, often without any formal contract, earn considerably less. Some, the AUT/NUS researchers estimate, are being paid less than half what a schoolteacher would earn, and less than any likely statutory minimum wage.

This is one area where the new universities offer better conditions than the old. The lecturers' union, the National Association of Teachers in Further Higher Education, negotiated a minimum teaching rate of pounds 23.30 an hour some years ago, and most of the new universities still adhere to that. "We know it is still too low, given the preparation needed, but it is some protection," says Amanda Hart of Natfhe.

"The lack of contracts causes great difficulties," says John Gray, of the National Postgraduate Committee. "I know of someone who had been teaching for two years when suddenly their department halved the rate of pay and virtually told them they could take it or leave it. When your employer is the person who is going to have a big say in whether or not you get your doctorate, people feel obliged to take it."

Professor Maurice Kogan of Brunel University, who has studied graduate education in the UK, accepts that there are advantages for postgraduates in the "apprentice teacher" model. But, in his experience, the help and support that academic departments offer their postgraduates varies enormously. "Some throw them in to sink or swim, with perhaps a five-minute briefing in the corridor before they take their first class. In those circumstances, the postgraduates have great difficulty in coping and the undergraduates suffer as a result."

The AUT/NUS survey found that the majority of postgraduate teachers had been through no formal assessment or selection procedure, and fewer than half had received any training in teaching methods. Half of them were teaching first-year undergraduates, but 20 per cent were teaching either final-year or postgraduate courses.

"This is a system which can work very well if it is carefully managed," says Professor Lisa Jardine, head of the English department at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. "We regard what we do as an important part of the training of our postgraduates, regardless of what career they intend to follow later."

Typically, a major lecture on Shakespeare for perhaps 200 undergraduates will also be attended by 10 staff, including both tenured and postgraduate teachers. The hour's lecture will be followed immediately by another hour in groups of 20 undergraduates to pick up on the points covered.

"I don't think our undergraduates think they are getting a raw deal from this sort of arrangement," says Professor Jardine, "because the postgraduates have the time to spend with them, they are closer in age, and they very often pick up problems that more senior staff might miss"n

Stephen is in his third and probably final year of study for a PhD in social policy at a southern university. He was not able to get a research council grant so he signed a three-year research and teaching contract with his department for pounds 6,000 a year, out of which the university deducted pounds 2,000 in fees.

His teaching commitment varies, but at worst it has involved six hours of teaching - the equivalent, when preparation and marking are taken into account, of about 18 hours' work a week. The five teaching assistants in the department are responsible for all the first-year undergraduate teaching, 160 students in all, which leads to an enormous marking load when written work is set.

"We are supposed to work full time, about 35 hours a week, on our doctoral work, but this is often impossible. I had a colleague who wrote only two chapters of his thesis during his three years here. He finished it off on the dole. I have just taken out a career development loan to buy me the time to finish my research. I justified it by telling the bank that a PhD is an essential qualification for an academic career"n

The department of government at Essex University is large and successful, with an intake of 60 single honours students a year, many more on joint degree and postgraduate courses and a number of attached research centres. Professor Joe Foweraker sees his postgraduate students and the teaching input they offer as an integral part of the department.

"We can draw on a large pool of postgraduates and find that they often turn out to be very good teachers. But they are monitored and trained by the department and the university for their role.

"They do not run courses or give lectures. They work as tutors or as classroom teachers, always with a staff member to guide their work. Most course leaders will meet with their postgraduate teaching assistants for discussion at least once a week.

"The undergraduates are not losing out in any way. On one of our first-year courses we have actually been able to offer an extra lecture by one of the 'big names' because we use postgraduates to back up with one-to-one tutorials and small seminars.

"In spite of these hard times, the university is a good employer, and we do take preparation and marking time into account in the hourly rates of pay. We work from a baseline of pounds 9.09 an hour, but pay for the first hour's class time as if it were three-and-a-half hours, the second as if it were two-and-a-half hours, and subsequent hours as if they were two hours. This means that a postgraduate committed to three hours' teaching would earn pounds 72.11.