In the past weeks a number of University of Edinburgh postgraduate tutors have come forward with complaints of chronic maltreatment on the part of the University, The Student can exclusively reveal.
Dr Lena Wånggren and Clara Martinez-Nistal, Vice President and Officer for Casualised Staff respectively of the University of Edinburgh branch of the Universities and College Union (UCU), co-wrote a comment to The Student on the issues they have observed.
“The University of Edinburgh is one of the country’s worst offenders when it comes to employing its staff on precarious contracts,” Dr Wånggren and Martinez-Nistal stated.
However the casualisation of contracts is just one of the many issues postgraduate tutors have reported. Muireann Crowley, a tutor for the School of Literatures Languages and Cultures (LLC), organised a survey of her fellow tutors, which received hundreds of responses in the few days in which it was live.
According to Crowley’s survey, the results of which were shared with The Student, some of the most frequent issues raised by respondents were those of pay scales, reduced hours, lack of training, and overall disrespectful treatment on the part of managerial staff.
“Pay scales need to be radically improved”
One of the most commonly brought up issues was that of the pay scale system utilised by the University in paying their casualised teaching staff.
Dr Wånggren, who completed her post graduate studies more than 4 years ago, and is current employed under the title of ‘Research Fellow’, informed The Student that her pay scale, UE06, is the same one that many postgraduate tutors are paid on, and that she knows many others in a similar position to herself.
Wånggren is also still employed on a guaranteed hours contract, which is one of the contracts the University has employed in recent years to replace the controversial zero-hours contracts which were previously used.
“While many staff members previously employed on zero-hours contracts have now been moved to ‘guaranteed hours’ contracts, a type of hourly contract stipulating a specific guaranteed number of hours of work for a year, the use of such contracts has not decreased; instead they have been accompanied by an increased use of one-off payments which is an even more precarious way of employing staff,” Wånggren told The Student.
Members of the UCU conducted a survey of staff on casualised contracts in 2015, and revealed several of their findings to The Student. According to their survey, one in seven teachers on causalised contracts are earning less than £500 a month, which places them below the Lower Earnings Limit for National Insurance Contributions, and 87 per cent of responders said they struggled to pay for some form of living necessities such as food, rent, or utilities, while employed by the University of Edinburgh.
This lack of sufficient pay, coupled with the lack of job security which accompanies casualised work, has led some to reconsider their choice of studying at the University or pursuing a career in academia altogether. One tutor, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote about their experiences as an employee of the University, telling The Student: “When I started my PhD I was convinced that I wanted to pursue an academic career, but now I’ve realised that if I do, these precarious conditions will only get worse.
“I know lots of tutors who have finished their PhD years ago and continue to work on hourly contracts, with no job security whatsoever and no prospects of getting a full time position any time soon,” they said
The issue of pay has also affected tutors’ and teachers’ abilities to complete their own work as PhD candidates and department researchers. One responder to Crowley’s survey expressed that they felt “the University is using us as well qualified, cheap labour during our studies,” while another concurred with these claims, saying that “if they [the University] valued teaching, they would pay us for it.”
“Pay us for the time we actually work”
While the contracts and pay scales used for tutors have garnered complaints and protest, a more recent development aimed at improving the experience of tutors has actually made that experience even more negative, according to those affected by it.
“This year the University has decided to limit to 6 hours a week the amount of time that PhD students can be employed by the University, presenting this policy as part of their ‘duty of care’ to ensure that we finish our PhD in time,” one survey responder explained.
“This has affected my finances considerably, and I’ve had to work up to 6 days a week all summer in minimum wage jobs to be able to pay my extortionate university fees; it goes without saying that all those months I was unable to get any PhD work done,” they said.
Many other responders to the survey echoed these claims, with one further explaining the new six-hour-cap policy was put into effect with very little consultation.
“We are subject to random decisions from the college or Human Resources, which are never identified as people, but as impenetrable monolithic structures, so you never know who to talk to,” they explained.
“The latest one [of these decisions] was a reduction in the total amount of hours we can work, which means that students who do not have a scholarship need to find other low paid and casualised jobs in order to make ends meet.
“The school sent us an email indicating that the only solution was to apply for an ‘interruption of studies’. So, it is okay for the University to charge expensive fees but when students, already paying an outstanding amount, need support, they need to stop studying in order to continue paying a lot of money.”
Other responders to the survey also expressed how the cap on their hours has affected their work, highlighting the fact that the hours cap does not take into account all the extra work tutors are expected to help with on their assigned courses.
“As a PhD student and guaranteed hours member of staff, I have had to design course content, lectures, exam and essay questions. These are responsibilities that lie outside the role of a guaranteed hours tutor as it is not included in our hourly pay,” they said.
“I feel that the University takes advantage of the PhD students, as we are more or less forced to take on responsibilities we do not get any training or pay for. This is because the University knows that teaching experience from a reputable university looks good on a CV, and the staff members who assign teaching actively use this as leverage to encourage us to take on tasks they are fully aware will not at all be covered in the hours we get paid to be in the classroom,” they concluded.
The hourly cap also does not include the amount of hours spent on marking, which is instead paid for by an established formula of minutes worked per essay marked. One responder explained this system, saying: “We are paid around 25 minutes to mark, comment and give feedback to a 2000-word essay.
“That is a task that takes around 40 minutes to do properly, even for more experienced tutors. This means that we are either being underpaid, sometimes even under the national minimum wage, or that the quality of the feedback is poor. This must be very frustrating for students, who many times work very hard on their essays for a week or more.”
“Frankly, the ‘training’ is awful”
Many tutors and teachers have also complained about the lack of training they receive for their given positions, saying that they are often forced to seek help from external resources and attend tutorials during hours which they are not being paid.
One tutor who wished to remain anonymous illuminated this issue, telling The Student that: “during the three years that I have spent tutoring in LLC, I have never received any sort of discipline-specific training.”
Another responder to Crowley’s survey went even further in discussing the issues they had with the lack of training provided to themselves and their colleagues.
“If teaching were valued at the University, tutors would be paid a living wage, and would be offered training and more mentoring by a course convener throughout the semester,” they said.
When the survey asked responders to indicate the amount of paid, discipline specific training or briefings they were offered prior to starting their teaching, 95.2 per cent said they were offered five or fewer hours of paid training, with almost half (49.3 per cent) of responders specifying that zero hours were offered.
“I feel deeply undervalued, they treat us like dirt”
Another common complaint among survey responders, anonymous tutors, and UCU representatives was the lack of respect tutors feel they are being shown by the University.
Many feel undervalued and badly treated by managerial staff, pointing out aspects of their everyday experiences, such as the fact that they are not allowed to use common staff areas, or that their complaints and issues are often met with little to no response from administrative supervisors.
One tutor who wished to remain anonymous told The Student: “It took over two months for the school to properly address the concerns I raised. During these two months, the frustration I felt led to depression, and I didn’t feel that I was being appreciated and respected either as a tutor or a PhD student.”
They continued: “Such treatment discourages me from pursuing an academic career. I feel that the University should take more seriously the ways in which it can invest in its graduate students’ experiences. Such an investment, if not in wages then in respect, would go a long way to fulfilling the University’s stated aim – the production and proliferation of knowledge.”
Another anonymous tutor explained that the undervaluation of their work takes a particular hit on their ability to fully commit to their work both as teacher and student.
“I love teaching and I want to give my students the best experience, but I refuse to work for free to maintain the University’s reputation on teaching excellence at the expense of my own wellbeing,” they said.
The lack of respect tutors feel they are shown from the University was also coupled with the complaint that the University often refers to the employment of PhD candidates as an “opportunity” for the candidate, for which they should be grateful.
One tutor discussed this issue with The Student, saying: “whenever we complain about anything, the University of Edinburgh presents these precarious conditions of work to its PhD tutors as wonderful opportunities for career development that we should be grateful for.”
Another delved deeper into the issue, explaining how the denial that the University shows towards complaints of maltreatment takes a serious toll on tutors’ mental health and career ambitions.
“It is really stressful and frustrating to put up with these conditions on top of successfully completing a postgraduate degree, most of all because the University’s response is always to deny that there are any problems,” they told The Student, continuing: “I feel ignored both as staff and as a student, and it makes me sad that an institution which was supposed to be focused on education cares more about making money than about its students and staff.
“If this is the future of academia, I no longer want to be a part of it,” they concluded.
Image: Vivian Uhlir