Unpaid labour: exploitation of tutorial leaders at the University of Edinburgh

Tutorial leaders are inadequately paid, overworked and under-supported according to data uncovered in an investigation by The Student. Though integral to the academic lives of the 25,951 undergraduates at the university, tutorial leaders are systematically exploited; the university fails to adequately pay their tutors for the amount of work that they are performing, grossly underestimating the reality of their workload, whilst also failing to provide adequate support and training leading many to question future careers in academia.

Working with surveys compiled by The Student and Fabio Battaglia, Postgraduate Representative for the School of Social and Political Science (SPS), this investigation focuses specifically on the experiences of PhD students working for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHSS). This is due to PhD tutors in the other colleges having a different range of work opportunities and thus often being employed under a different type of contract. The Student has used Battaglia’s data in conjunction with our own study to provide personal experiences specific to SPS which elaborate on the university-wide issues highlighted by our own survey. 

Firstly, underpaid preparation: “the entire system is based on a totally unrealistic account of what it actually takes to tutor.”

A big issue with the current system, stressed respondents, is that being paid for only an hour of preparation for each tutorial group is insufficient, with over three quarters stating that it consistently takes over double the time they are paid for to prepare tutorials. Most schools pay and expect tutors to spend an hour per week preparing each tutorial. However, “it always, always takes longer,” with, in the worst cases, some tutors spending up to eight hours of preparation on three tutorials.

Schools reportedly justify this calculation by arguing that preparation time will decrease as tutors become more accustomed to the material and to teaching as they accumulate more years of experience. Yet this carries the assumption that tutors will be tutoring in future years, on the same course, with the same reading list. Indeed nearly three-quarters of Battaglia’s respondents saw the reading list change, with 44 per cent of those who had tutored before still having to prepare for more time than they were paid for. 

Additionally, this way of reasoning seems to explicitly penalise first-time tutors. As one respondent put it, “the preparation time for teaching and marking is totally unaccounted for [especially] penalising the most junior workers. [This] absolutely counts as exploitation.” Furthermore, the calculation counts the number of tutorials that a tutor teaches rather than the number of students in each tutorial, a factor that has a significant effect on a tutor’s workload. An increase in students significantly increasing the workload of office hours.

Furthermore, most schools fail to pay their tutors to attend lectures (the only tutors who are paid to attend, as The Student is aware, being those who tutor philosophy). This leads to 45.7 per cent of tutors within the School of SPS not attending lectures because they “don’t wish to add to my unpaid work,” despite the fact that, according to one respondent, they would be “useful.” The respondent went on to state that “this is likely to result in students getting less effective support from tutors.” Furthermore, of those that do attend, 20 per cent state that they were implicitly or explicitly told to do so. 

77 per cent of tutors agree that preparation time has a negative effect on their research capabilities. Consequently, it seems painfully clear to most working tutors that those who calculate the WAM do not have a realistic understanding of the practicalities of teaching. Indeed, “the entire system is based on a totally unrealistic account of what it actually takes to tutor.” 

Training: ‘An hour-long meeting does not a tutor make’

The “shocking” lack of formal training that PhD tutors receive may be one of the reasons why preparation is taking longer than expected. With only a third feeling confident in their abilities to help tutees learn the material, it is of no surprise that training has been described as “completely inadequate,” “shocking,” and “mostly administrative,” just under half of respondents stating that their training was insufficient. 

The quality of training varies wildly between schools, and even between course organisers. Certain tutors say that they received absolutely no formal training at all, while others state that the training leader “[taught us] nothing that we could not have simply guessed or thought of on our own.” The fact is that the current training fails to take into account the realities of the tutor experience, with many of the tutors noting that “informal, interpersonal sharing and advice between tutors was far more valuable.” Furthermore, the training is not paid but rather “tacitly expected as extra-curricular” and “dependent on goodwill.” 

When asked what tutors feel needs to be done about this, a tutor responded: “train the professors to actually develop the skills to teach us how to teach,” with another agreeing that “teaching PhD students how to teach is a real area of deficiency at the University of Edinburgh.”

Arguing that “we need [a] minimum [of] a week of paid training where we learn about lesson planning, classroom management etc.” with further respondents suggesting “discipline-specific training,” “guidance/overview of the uni’s policy regarding exemptions for mental illness” and “an idea of who/where to contact if we have concerns about a student” or “difficult circumstances.” The level of dissatisfaction with senior management is evident.

Assessment:‘[T]o mark an essay in 20 or 45 minutes is something only robots can do’

As specified in the evidence amassed by The Student, little value is given to the work undertaken by tutors when marking essays and assignments, a worrying revelation considering the gravity placed upon these forms of assessment. SPS tutors are currently paid according to essay length on the basis that it takes 20 minutes to mark a 1,500 word essay, 30 minutes for 2,000 words and 45 minutes for 3,000 words. While this is already limited, respondents from the School of Divinity stated that they were given as little as 10 minutes per piece, despite it taking at least three times that time.

What is universal is the fact that nearly all tutors surveyed in this study state they are underpaid, considering the amount of time it takes to mark an essay to a high standard, with only one respondent stating that they were able to adequately complete good marking in the time given. Indeed this is backed up by Battaglia’s study which states that 92 per cent of those that responded to his survey are underpaid when it comes to marking assessment. What is more, 81 per cent of those who responded to our survey said they spent twice their allocated time marking, in order to deliver sufficient feedback.

Due to such inadequate pay, 42.8 per cent of SPS respondents admitted to Battaglia that to minimise the amount of unpaid labour, they force themselves to mark only within the allocated time, a restriction that 83 per cent believe affects the quality of their feedback. One tutor mentioned that they didn’t have enough time to “properly check the bibliography and that the sources cited in the essays were real.” A third of respondents leave extra assessments such as online blogs unaccounted for due to the lack of time. One tutor even disclosed that they knew of people who had to give out random marks due to the intense combination of their excessive workload, lack of training and unfair pay. In short, tutors are in their own words “discouraged by current pay rates to give accurate and quality feedback.”  

Pay: “The discrepancy between hours worked and [hours] paid mean [that] my hourly rate is worse than minimum wage” 

Given that they are working up to three times the amount of time than they are actually paid for, it is unsurprising that 71 per cent of tutors find their pay is insufficient. “The discrepancy between hours worked and [hours] paid means [that] my hourly rate is worse than [the national] minimum wage,” one respondent pointed out. This leads to frequent mention of “exploitation” when describing the relationship between the university and its graduate employees.

Due to “limited sources of other employment” that are available to PhD students, there is often little option but to be employed in a job that costs them in both “administrative labour and emotional labour.” As well as the need to find and maintain employment, tutors feel a sense of responsibility towards their students, feeling compelled to “help them through their learning experience and any other troubles that they may encounter.” This is perceived by many to amount to a form of  “emotional blackmail,” in which the university exploits a tutor’s “conscientious desire to do the best by their students.” 

Tutors also argue that the pay fails to take into account the ‘extras’ such as “answering emails and meeting with students,” which is not claimable. To add to this, the “time-consuming paperwork” such as  “entering the roll call into the system, chasing student attendance, notifying the course administrator of absent students” all fail to be covered by the hour of preparation for each tutorial group and again are not claimable. These financial impacts take a toll. Around two thirds of PhD tutors are forced to work another job to sustain themselves financially. This only adds to the pressure to prepare, teach and carry out their own research to a high standard. 

Academic Experience: “my teaching is research-led, but equally, my research is often teaching-led.” 

Given the ill-calculated wage, casual contract and time-consumption, the simple solution may appear to be for PhD students to stop working for the university. However, for many, teaching experience is either explicitly demanded in the terms of their PhD contract or implicitly required to pursue a career in academia. One tutor responded that it is an “essential requirement for academic jobs.” This reality is recognised by the respondents, with 86 per cent of them considering teaching as a crucial part of their academic experience. 

This reflects an important point; that the majority of tutors genuinely enjoy teaching, describing it as a “fascinating experience,” “fun and rewarding despite the exploitative conditions.” Many tutors acknowledge the important role that being a point of contact between new avenues of thought and new enquiring minds brings, stating that “being able to explain complex ideas to a younger generation of students is extremely important” indeed another tutor argues that it is “under appreciated” in the academic community.“Helping others understand and guiding them” should be a “top goal.” This is emphasised by another respondent, who believes that “there is little point in acquiring knowledge if we are unable to communicate it in a way [so] that the next person can do the same.”

In light of this, it is a shock that most of the respondents are uncertain whether they would like to continue being a tutorial leader. This is due to the fact that 62 per cent say that they would call their employment precarious as there are “more applicants than positions,” and a further 60 per cent saying that they have to work other jobs. Furthermore, the university has enacted policies on who can be hired as a tutor “with preference given to people in the 2nd-3rd years of their PhD.” 

And yet, despite the vocational attraction, practical benefits and enjoyment of the job, most respondents said that they were uncertain whether to continue tutoring. In light of this, it is a shock that most of the respondents are uncertain whether they would like to continue being a tutorial leader. This is due to the fact that 62 per cent say that they would call their employment precarious as there are “more applicants than positions,” and a further 60 per cent saying that they have to work other jobs. Furthermore, the university has enacted policies on who can be hired as a tutor “with preference given to people in the 2nd-3rd years of their PhD.” In Ogryzko’s words, ‘it’s just poor economics because as a society, we are not investing enough in the next generation of lecturers, the next generation of researchers. And there is a limit to what anyone can do with the incentives that are given’. The impact of overworked, underpaid tutors with little to no training is not only an issue that is restricted to PhD tutors-it has a negative impact on the quality of all undergraduate education at the university. This is the consequence of a system wherein a significant portion of direct teaching that undergraduates receive is from PhD tutors who function as a key link between the material and the student. 

As a Russell Group member, the University of Edinburgh appears to be overlooking the value of tutors in the academic hierarchy. As the data presented has shown, underestimated pay calculations can affect the tutor’s ability to prepare, teach and assess, which has a direct, significant impact on the undergraduate experience. Detailed and accurate marks and feedback are one of the basic expectations for a university to provide to its students, but the expertise that goes into performing this basic service is clearly being drastically undervalued by the university. Undergraduate students, faced with their own problems, often do not think about the financial and work-related pressures on their teachers. Yet as fee-paying students, not only should it be a shock that roughly 0.008 per cent of undergraduate fees go into marking pay, but students should be active in condemning the pressure on their tutors. 

Yet, after years of falling through the cracks, the representation of those employed under guaranteed hours contracts is now one of the University and College Union’s (UCU) main priorities. Nik Ogryzko, UCU Edinburgh officer for fixed term and hourly paid staff, is optimistic that the administration shows a genuine desire to improve but realistic about the difficulties of change to such a large organisation, likening it to “turning around an oil tanker.” The UCU has recently signed an agreement with the university regarding the rights and regulation of guaranteed hours staff. While the details are yet to be published, Ogryzko claims that “the university has recognised that this is an issue and there are some schools and some departments where things sometimes slip through the cracks…so it is mainly about the fact that our current policies are a little bit more strictly enforced.” Time is the key issue for Ogryzko, but  “unfortunately for us, time is something that our PhD students don’t have because we are on fixed-term contracts in precarious positions, so it is a question of whether any of us will still be around when these benefits are reached. Progress is slow, but I think we are definitely  going in the right direction.” 

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said: “We value the work of our tutors, and take their wellbeing very seriously.  We are working closely with the University and College Union (UCU) on these issues, and its members are being kept informed. The ‘Have Your Say’ suggestion site gives staff and students the opportunity to suggest ways we can improve. All suggestions are considered, with responses and developments posted online.”

Considering the evidence reflected upon above, the disparity between the university’s emphasis upon its high standards of teaching and the resources which it expends to maintain such standards appears exploitative and poorly reasoned. As is suggested in the research conducted in this investigation, tutors in CAHSS are being subjected to a competitive, uncertain and pressurised working environment, without proper consideration of their wellbeing. It would appear that the university’s claims of ‘world-class teaching’ are far from the realities of tutor’s experiences.

Image via UCU Edinburgh twitter @edinburghucu

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The Student Newspaper 2016