Victory for the Anti-Casualisation Campaign: the new GTA contracts

On March 1st 2021, the University of Nottingham’s People & HR Committee voted to approve a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) model for hiring postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to teach, to begin in the 2021/22 academic year. These roles will be exclusively offered to PGRs, and are intended to replace the Teaching Affiliate roles that previously existed, involving the preparation and delivery of seminars; provision of student contact hours; and marking responsibilities. Teaching Affiliate roles were hourly-paid and subcontracted to UniTemps, the University’s outsourced temporary engagement agency, offering none of the employment rights that come with having employee status with the University. While still hourly-paid, the new GTA contracts will be fixed-hours, in-house contracts of employment with the University; will grant employee status to PGRs who teach; and will secure pay and employment rights accordingly. This should be seen as a massive win in the fight against casualisation in higher education.

This win comes off the back of several years of successful campaigning. The work began in November 2015, with the launch of UoN’s Living Wage Campaign. Following on from this, a UoN Anti-Casualisation Campaign was formed in 2017/18, and remains active. In July 2019, grassroots campaigning by this group – in coordination with the UoN UCU branch – helped agree a set of principles with the University for the fair employment of Teaching Affiliates, establishing a faculty-wide Hourly-Paid Task & Finish Group to oversee its implementation. The subsequent work of this Task & Finish Group – which included representatives from UoN UCU, UoN Students’ Union, HR and Faculty management – produced several positive outcomes. These included the role of Teaching Affiliates being clarified so that no PGRs with teaching responsibilities were doing work for which they were not being paid, and the Faculty of Arts committing to recognise lecture attendance as required Teaching Affiliate work, resulting in an additional hour of weekly pay. When Teaching Affiliate positions were drastically cut across the University in 2020, a series of letter-writing campaigns and petitions to the Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Director of HR – organised by PGRs and supported by UoN UCU – resulted in a reconvening of the Task & Finish Group, opening the door to a conversation about how PGRs should be employed. The combined work and solidarity of PGRs on the ground, UCU members and representatives, and the officers of UoN’s Student Union resulted in the outcome we have today. This successful combination of grassroots collective organising, alongside the efforts of UCU and SU branch officials to lobby management and support members’ demands, provides valuable lessons for future campaigns.

We should celebrate this achievement, but there is still work to be done. With GTA contracts now approved, it is essential that they are implemented quickly across the University, to make up for a year of lost teaching opportunities for PGRs, and to help reduce the enormous workload which permanent staff have had to shoulder following cuts to PGR teachers. This is also part of ensuring that all teaching work is properly paid, and that PGRs are not asked to volunteer their labour for free as a result of cuts to previously paid positions. To this end, the recent GTA motion moved at the UoN UCU Branch meeting on 10th March called on the Branch Committee, Reps, and members across the University to work within their faculties and schools to ensure management widely and effectively implement the GTA model. This motion passed with 99% of attendees voting in favour. The implementation of GTA contracts needs to be carefully overseen so that they will be fair and effective. It is vital that, while these new contracts greatly improve the conditions of PGRs who teach, we must insist they go hand in hand with improvements for all precarious staff. Hence, we continue to demand that all post-doctoral, full-time, and part-time teaching staff, should be offered more secure forms of employment as a rule, and should not be placed on the same short-term contracts designed for PGRs who teach. Finally, we need to ensure that the hourly-paid teaching roles that are not presently covered by the GTA model – such as lab demonstrators – are being fairly paid, do not ask PGRs to do work which should be covered by GTAs, and can eventually be moved onto similar contracts of employment with the University. 

In solidarity,

Daniel Edmondson (UoN UCU-Nominated Teaching Affiliate Representative) and Joe Kearsey (UoN UCU Anti-Casualisation Officer).

UoN Must Save Our PGR Teachers

At the end of April 2020, the Faculty of Arts announced that it was cutting all postgraduate teaching opportunities from its 2020/21 budget, and since then the Faculty of Social Sciences has followed suit. In some departments, it is standard for teaching posts to only be offered to final year PhDs; colleagues who have gone through a year-long unpaid training programme and interview process, only now to be facing no chance of getting this essential career experience.  We are clear that these cuts are a choice; the UCU has recently learned that the combined cost of cutting PGR teaching in both Faculties could be recovered with money to spare, if the University simply stopped running one of its managerial training programmes for a year. 

It has been two months since this announcement, and the situation is still unclear. PGRs have been told since the cuts were announced that the only alternative was to be (unpaid) teaching training via the Graduate School (now Researcher Academy), though we were never given details about what this would look like, how it could possibly compensate for classroom experience and how it would be accredited. We have since learned that these questions have no answers, because the Researcher Academy does not currently have the provisions to provide such training. Following collective action from PGRs and pressure from both the UCU and the UoN Anti-Casualisation Campaign, some headway is starting to be made in discussions, but the genuine alternatives we are suggesting are still in competition with unpaid, unaccredited, unsatisfactory ones (e.g. shadowing contracted staff teaching, attending one-off teaching conferences).   

PGRs should be teaching in classrooms in the 2020/21 academic year. In addition to helping reduce the workload on contract staff, who have already taken part in strike action twice in the past year because of overwork and underpay, postgraduate teachers bring enthusiasm and excellence to teaching at Nottingham.  Two of the five recipients of the Tri-Campus Postgraduate Teaching Awards 2020 were from the Faculty of Arts, including myself, as were two of the five postgraduate teachers who were highly commended in the category. Despite this, our contracts are casualised and outsourced to a temp work agency, and we have been among the first to be placed under the axe. 

I have been fortunate enough to have taught for two years, and it’s a genuine pleasure that I want all of my colleagues to be able to experience. But it’s not just enjoyable, it’s necessary. On June 17th, required training for current final year PhDs in the Faculty of Arts repeatedly stressed the necessity of teaching experience in applying for academic careers, while making some small mention of how this will not be possible for those coming to the end of their studies next year. Schools and Faculties know this, which is why we’re still hearing talk about PhDs ‘volunteering’ their teaching next year to gain experience, despite insistence from Faculty management that this will not be allowed. It must not be; it would be asking us to set a dangerous precedent by agreeing to do unpaid work. Such ideas are particularly troubling, as teaching is not just career development; for some PGRs (particularly those who are marginalised in academia and/or who self-fund) it can be an indispensable means of generating additional income.

Daniel, PGR Teacher / Teaching Affiliate