Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG – PGR casual teaching: making improvements within parameters

By Nathan Ritchie

This is the final blog of a series I have written for PhD SSN. I just want to quickly thank SSN for affording me the opportunity to express my views and discuss some important PGR related issues. I have written elsewhere why this group is so important to our PGR community and I am very optimistic about its future. The aim of this series was to begin a conversation about issues that are spoken about between PGRs but often not published in blogs or through other mediums. The blogs have not only been aimed at PGRs but also to staff, in the hope of putting some key issues on the agenda.  I hope that other, perhaps more eloquent, and thoughtful PGRs than I will continue to write their thoughts on important issues.

My final topic of the series concerns casual teaching. I think this topic is worth addressing and I have only touched briefly on it in previous blogs. I am not going to discuss the pitfalls of casualisation to any large extent as I think this topic has been well covered by the UCU. But many of the problems with the current system I believe is in large part a consequence of casual contracts. I do think that adjustments can be made within these parameters, however and it should not serve as an excuse to not improve things. The three issues I will address are as follows: training of PGR teachers, appointment of PGR teachers and the impact of the University response to Covid-19 on teaching.

Teaching in the Digital Age

Firstly, it is worth very briefly covering the debate about casual staff. In 2018, according to UCU the average university relied on hourly-paid staff for just over a quarter of all teaching. However, it was pointed in the same article that the majority of universities chose not to come forward about the extent to which they were using casual staff. PGRs are often more than willing to take on casual contracts as they see teaching experience as invaluable to future career prospects. Often lecturers are more than pleased to jettison some of their teaching hours to PGRs in order to free up some time for research. Some PGRs still in the mindset of a student will not see this as work per se, just an opportunity. To be paid for it is a bonus. But it must be remembered that this is employment, and those on casual contracts do not receive many workers rights. For example, there is no sick pay. No maternity/paternity leave. Nil job security.  There is also no university-wide agreement on pay grade so that if you teach for two hours for SSEHS you may receive less or more money than you would for Social Sciences for essentially the same work.

Teaching training for PGRs is inadequate. If you want to qualify for teaching at Loughborough you must take the Essential Teaching course at the Doctoral College. It is not that the courses themselves are poorly designed or not well delivered. I found them interactive and at times interesting. But they were not at all specific to my research area at all. They are more of a formality than a learning experience. This is one issue with training that is so centralised. It is not helpful to treat PGRs as a collective in terms of teacher training because the research areas we are in are so different to one another and require differing skills. There has to be training at the school level. I know that this is an issue with resources.  But at the moment it is simply too sweeping and ambitious to train all PGRs as if the skills needed are translatable from one school to another. If I am teaching in a lab, that is an entirely different experience than if I am teaching in a seminar room. Identifying hazards in the classroom is less an issue in the latter for example. The essential training should be done at the school level and the DCO should offer further training for those interested. At the moment for many PGRs entering the classroom for the first time to teach, it is like throwing a toddler with deflated armbands in the deep end. Sink or swim.

The process of PGR teacher appointment will likely vary from one school to another. So, I do not wish to generalise. I know for example in schools where there is plenty of teaching hours available, there will be a sign-up sheet, so that any PGR in that school can register interest. In other schools the process is far more informal with job offers from lecturer to PGR via e-mail. There are issues with both ways of appointing PGR teachers. The sign up sheet approach where anyone can register interest is not discriminatory enough. Any PGR who is interested can sign up to teach on a range of modules that they may not be qualified to do. If for example a PGR needed extra money, there is really nothing stopping them signing up for a module that is entirely unsuitable to them. There should be some process of selection for both the sake of the student, university, and the protection of the PGR.  The second approach that works by a lecturer recommending a specific PGR is too discriminatory. It can mean that some PGRs benefit over others because of their supervisors or connections they have built up with lecturers. In one way at least the PGR is being appointed based on the lecturer’s judgement of their ability. But there are issues concerning transparency and favouritism. It is not a merit based system. In my school myself and another colleague fought for a more transparent form-based system where all PGRs are able to see the modules available and who has taken them. I suggest all schools should have this as standard. This should also be extended to marking. I recognise the issues with formalising casual work. But it seems odd that there is no interview, no review of skills and experience in many schools. This is doing a disservice to students and PGRs.

There are two issues relating to the university response to Covid-19 measures that I would like to address. I have so far generally steered clear of discussing Covid-19 related issues. Firstly, because there are so many opinions about higher education and Covid-19 already out there. I do not wish to become one of the shouting mob. Secondly, in many ways it becomes more serious to criticise or undermine current Loughborough University messaging on Covid-19. It can already be anxiety inducing and I do not want to further muddy the waters by critiquing every aspect of communication or financial help. But perhaps another blog much later down the line if I decide to make a comeback. But I do wish to comment on teaching. Firstly, I do not think many PGRs were given enough support to transition to online teaching once lockdown occurred. I was lucky enough that I had really supportive staff on the module I was teaching. But casual teachers received no correspondence from Associate Dean of Teaching in the Social Sciences and no offer with support with equipment. I would be curious to know whether the lack of support from those in senior positions occurred across the university. Of course, this an issue from the past, stressful times with many different components. But many pre-existing issues have been exacerbated because of recent events and this is emblematic of a lack of support for casual teachers. Finally, I want to recognise and send thoughts out to those casual teachers that have been made redundant recently. PGRs have lost thousands of pounds of income as a result of the university financial response to Covid-19 measures. Teaching for PGRs has been severely reduced but these are not recognised as redundancies in the same way as a staff member would be. I have previously stated that PGR teachers will not have even been told their services are not required. Instead they are just not offered another contract to teach and in the process lose money and experience. Some of these teachers will have been working on the same module for a few years.  Speaking of experience, I also want to recognise that many PGRs will not get the teaching experience they had hoped for because the current situation. I just think someone needs to recognise that because certainly the institution has not.  I would also encourage PGRs to ask researchers across other universities whether their teaching has been restricted before presuming that it is the done thing across the sector to totally reduce the amount of teaching.

Postgraduate Researchers can make some of the best teachers. They have a lot to offer seminars and students can often find them more approachable than lecturers. It is common for the PGR teacher to score higher in module feedback ratings than an experienced staff member. But so far the PGR teacher is hamstrung by insufficient training. PGRs perform well in spite of the training not because of it. There is not enough transparency in teaching allocation and thus some PGRs are missing out on the experience all together. The severe reduction in teaching opportunities this year, hopefully gives the Doctoral College and all schools an opportunity to think of ways we can improve circumstances for casual teachers. It may be that all these issues are merely symptoms of casualisation, but I believe little differences can still be made by the institution to help protect the PGR community.

Thank you again for reading my blogs. I do hope it is of interest to some. I really appreciate all the kind feedback I receive. Feel free to e-mail me at n.ritchie@lboro.ac.uk or follow my Twitter @NathanRitchie16. Bye for now and BabaBooey to you all.

Nathan Ritchie

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