Thursday, 7 June 2012

GTA pay

The British Postgraduate Philosophy Association has published a survey of GTAs' working hours which suggests that many UK institutions, including Lancaster, pay their GTAs less than minimum wage in real terms.

I was first startled by this, and then ashamed that I hadn't done more, in my role as Part I Convenor (and therefore our GTAs' line-manager) to check with them how much work they were actually doing.

Brian Leiter posted about this, and got a little bit of discussion, including from me:
[1st comment]
I convene part I philosophy at Lancaster, one of the intitutions picked out by the BPPA as paying less than minimum wage in real terms, and I therefore manage the excellent group of teaching assistants who are being paid so badly. I have several responses to this survey:

1) I agree that GTAs are underpaid and generally undervalued, and I’m pleased to have some extra ammunition for arguing that case with the people who set wages and conditions at Lancaster. I hope the UCU and other unions will also do some pushing here.

2) I find the results worrying in a different way. Working backwards from a real pay less than £6.08/hr and our official rate of pay and hours (2 hours of prep for every hour in the classroom), a GTA doing 3 seminars/week would have to be doing about 6 hours of prep and marking per seminar, per week, to be getting less than minimum wage. Someone doing 6 hours per group per week is not working efficiently, and needs training and mentoring. I’m unhappy that my GTAs are overworking to this extent, and while I do not believe that amount of preparation is necessary for the teaching we ask them to do, I clearly need to do more here.

3) There’s a tension in how we understand GTA work. Traditionally in UK universities, it’s a valuable apprenticeship in university teaching offered as part of postgraduate training, on the assumption that our students plan an academic career. Pay isn’t the central point, and we rely on our GTAs to be enthusiastic amateurs who do the work for its own sake and for career-development purposes, not just to put food on the table. But UK universities increasingly rely on professional adjuncts including GTAs to deliver first-year and other undergraduate teaching, and adjunct teaching is turning into a career, or a substitute for one. The UK is following a path already taken by the US in this, of course. If that’s what being a GTA is, then it ought to be paid and supported far better, and be far less precarious, than it is. But I’m not convinced that the way to make that case is to advocate increasing hourly pay, or adding an extra hour or two of prep. Why shouldn’t being a GTA be a proper part-time job with a salary?

[2nd comment]
Addendum: It’s been pointed out to me by one of Lancaster's GTAs, Sarah Hitchin, that prep time includes marking every 5 weeks, so my claim in (2) that an average 6 hours of prep per week per seminar is inefficient work isn’t fair. What I intended as the main point of (2) – that I and probably others who manage GTAs need to do more to monitor and help them to avoid overwork, as well as to push for better pay – stands, though.
Some further calculations:

Over a 5-week period of teaching 3 groups, we pay:
  • 15 taught hours = 45 paid hours
  • 15 hours of seminars leaves 30 paid hours for prep (= reading, planning), marking, and admin (= attending plagiarism and standardisation meetings, office hours, email, physically getting coursework to and from Gillian, etc.).
  • 2 hours per week lectures = 10 hours lectures leaves 20 hours for prep, marking, admin
  • 2 hours a week prep (total, not per seminar) = 10 hours prep leaves 10 hours for marking
  • 10 hours to mark 45 pieces of coursework = less than 15 minutes per piece (which isn’t enough, obviously)
  • no time at all for admin
This is clearly inadequate. At this rate of pay, a GTA would either have to skimp on the work, or - much more likely - allow themselves to be exploited.

Over a 5-week period with 3 groups, to be paid minimum wage in real terms, i.e. £6.08 per hour’s actual work:
  • total pay = £41.55 x 15 hours = £623.25
  • divided by £6.08 = 102.5 hours (= 20.5 hours per week)
  • 15 hours of seminars leaves 87.5 hours for prep and marking
  • 2 hours per week lectures = 10 hours lectures leaves 77.5 hours for prep and marking
  • Guesswork from here on:
  • 4 further hours per week prep and admin = 20 hours leaves 55.5 hours for marking
  • 55.5 hours to mark 45 pieces of coursework = nearly 1¼ hours per piece
  • So to be paid less than minimum wage, some or all of marking, prep and admin are taking even longer than these estimates.
Comment: more than an hour to mark a 1,500-word piece of coursework strikes me as excessive. I realise that this includes preparation (e.g. reading) for the marking as a whole and some double-checking and returning to borderline cases, but I do think there's room for training and mentoring to speed this up. It takes me about an hour to mark and write extensive comments on a 5,000-word third-year essay, for comparison. I'm more experienced than most (not all) of our first-year tutors, but I don't have some special magic talent for marking fast, I've just learned to do it efficiently.

More detail still: the PHIL100 coursework isn't all essays: it's (1) a close reading exercise; (2) 'critical thinking', i.e. formal and semi-formal logic exercises plus a short essay; (3) a bibliography; (4) an essay. My experience of marking samples for standardisation is that (1) and especially (2) are quick to mark, (3) rather slow, (4) middling. If that's true for others, this suggests that the average of 1¼ hours per piece includes the bibliography (3) taking a lot more than that each. Perhaps that coursework needs to be redesigned.

A first sketch of a more realistic rate of pay, again for 3 seminar groups over 5 weeks:
  • 15 taught hours
  • attend 2 lectures/week = 10 hours
  • PREP: 4 hours/week prep including reading, planning, office hour, email = 20 hours
  • MARKING: ½ hr for each of 45 pieces of coursework, plus 2-3 hours for standardisation, plus 2-3 hours for plagiarism cases, plus a bit of leeway = 30 hours
  • = 75 hours total actual work (15 hours or 2 days per week)
= Rate of pay of 5 hours per taught hour (compare our current rate of 3/1)

A pie-in-the-sky idea: Why shouldn't being a GTA be a proper part-time job pro-rata on the official salary scale, with benefits?


  1. Hi Sam,

    This is a very quick response to the time it takes to mark essays, with due apologies for the fact that it will not be as well put together as it ought be (I should add that I am writing it inbetween answering student questions about the course material before the exam on saturday...)

    1) It is easier to work with the products of a skilled worker than an unskilled one.
    We mark work presented by people with little to no philosophical training, many of whom did not come here to acquire these skills but are minors who don't plan to continue. Majors are a self-selecting and selected group who want to work in a particular way with particular tools and who have at least a year of experience doing this. This has two effects I think

    a) it is harder to get at exactly what is being said/argued for in a piece, thus it takes longer to read and more time has to be spent going over what it presented (if we didn't do this, I suspect a lot more work would fail)

    b)there are more likely to be misunderstandings in the piece itself which need to be highlighted and corrected if possible in order to prevent repetition of those same errors.

    2) Our students are new to university. It is enough of a shock to see your grades plummet from the dizzying heights of A level marks. It is a worse shock to have that with little sign of what has gone wrong. Time spent carefully marking up essays and writing feedback saves time spent in office consultations or bad feedback from unsatisfied students. As there are more likely to be more non-philosophical errors in first year work as well as philosophical ones this can take a lot of time.

    These could be and are addressed to an extent by giving whole-group feedback, however this eats into seminar time and does not guarantee that each student gets the feedback which they need. Individuals in groups can often think your concerns and corrections are directed at everyone but them.

  2. 3) There is a certain disconnect between the content of the course and the assignments. This means that we are often assessing several things over and above what would normally be required in an essay. The 1,500 essays are always the easiest marking task of the year and the least time consuming (saving perhaps the first assignment).
    This also means that students - inspite of instruction - don't really 'get' what is being asked of them. Hence more need for constructive feedback and trying to work out what has gone on in the work you are being presented with.

    4) We often mark work in areas which we do not work in outside of Phil 100. This means we need to spend longer on background prep for marking and perhaps need to go more slowly. We are also more likely to need to chase up secondary sources to see if they do say what they are being claimed to. We may not have to do this if we taught subjects directly related to our own subject areas and selected the questions to be examined ourselves (I for example have a ball talking about performatives in the critical thinking seminar they come up in as I know that stuff by heart and can respond more quickly to students' questions or misunderstandings, as in seminars so in marking)

    5) On a personal note - I mark the way I do because of the type of philosopher I am, I think I am the sort of philosoper I am because of the person I am. I go slowly and steadily in part to work through the tango printed words dance for me. This necessarily slow, careful reading has its benefits for me as a philosopher but it also has disadvantages in terms of the time it takes to get through things others can do more quickly. It probably also makes my students think I am hugely pedantic (I am sure this will seem ironic as I fail to catch my own typos here).

    6) Group sizes are bigger, individual students have less personal interaction with us so we are less able to catch misunderstandings etc in the seminars and correct them before they surface in submitted work.

    7) We often work as a team and support each other by asking if such-and-such a sentence makes sense (for example). In particular more experienced TAs are asked for advice, help and support from those with less experience of Phil 100. This is of course as it should be, but it does take time on both sides to do this.

    As I said, those are really top of my head and obviously I am only speaking from my own experience here.

  3. Sarah, of course you're right that there's a lot more stuff involved in being a good teacher than my sketch suggests, and that Lancaster part I seminars present special problems.

    (Deleted from here: lengthy self-righteous rant about how you kids nowadays don't know you're born, I used to teach 15 part I seminars a day when I were a teaching fellow, and then when I got home, Sean Crawford would kill me and dance on my grave singing halleluja... and he'd still expect me to have marked a pile of essays by morning.)

    What I'd like to know is: do you think my first sketch of a realistic rate of pay, 5 paid hours per hour taught, is anything like acceptable? It's not ideal, for sure, but it's just possible we could get it with a bit of pushing in the right places.

  4. I need to find time to sit down and read through it carefully before commenting. I've tried but it is feeling like a blur of numbers right now (which is probably in part as I'm trying to get my paper for BSPS written so my brain is stuffed with new jargon).

    The way I work out how many hours I work on average is to add up lectures, seminars and office hours, one hour prep, plus an hour per assignment.
    This is roughly fair I think as it excludes admin, moderation, moderation meetings, plagarism meetings and evidence gathering, emailing students and meetings with students which fall outside office hours, prep for teaching (planning, photocopying, printing etc), reading for teaching and marking which extends beyond the allotted hour given for this in the calculation.

    For 4 seminars for 24 weeks that works out as

    24 x 4 seminars - 96
    24 office hours
    48 lectures
    24 prep
    60 x 4 marking

    which adds up to 432 hours

    I think that divides down to 4 and a half hours per seminar (working with a C in GCSE maths here so be kind!). Given how much is excluded rounding up to 5 may well be a more fair number.

    My points above should not be read as complaints by the way (except the bit about class sizes - that really is but it also something we can't do anything about) but simple reasons why, for me, it takes longer than may be expected to mark first year work.

    Nice meta-rant there by the way!