Reproduced with permission of the AUT from Outlook, No 2001
A group of postgraduate student teachers show that getting organised is a good start in improving employment conditions
The role of the postgraduate who teaches in higher education can often be a dubious one. So when in October 1999 the postgraduates attending one of Essex Universityís "Starting to teach" courses began comparing notes, they realised that those who had already been teaching for two or three years were largely disillusioned with their working conditions and their departmentís attitude to their teaching. The discussion revealed sizeable variations in the expected duties, pay, and support for Graduate Teaching Assistants (gtas) across the university. It was also noted that, since the university had recently closed access to the postgraduate e-mail list, there was no forum for gtas to discuss the issues.
As a result of these discussions a union society, Students Who Teach (swt), was formed. Its aim was to facilitate communication between gtas and to raise issues of poor teaching conditions with the university authorities. swt members spoke at "Starting to teach" courses and departmental induction meetings (where they existed), and a year later swt had over 100 postgraduates on its mailing list. More members meant that more issues were raised in the meetings and swt began to look for sources of support and information regarding the rights of teaching postgraduates. On the suggestion of a member, swt contacted the Asociation of University Teachers to see what advice they could provide.
Three aut members of swt then joined the associationís informal Postgraduate Issues Advisory Committee (piac) and were provided with relevant information in the form of the joint aut/npc/nus Employment Charter and Good Practice Guide. piac also put swt in touch with their local association at Essex and swt is currently promoting aut postgraduate membership.
Members of swt also sit on a university sub-committee proposing new guidelines concerning the terms and conditions of employment of gtas. With advice from the association they called for a member of personnel to be present at the meetings. Terms and conditions are now being drafted, which means, for the first time, postgraduates will be defined by the university as employees. At Essex where most do not have contracts and are still paid termly, where some departments keep no record of their postgraduate teachers and do not involve them in any decision making processes, this is progress.
However, swt is not and should not be a permanent feature at Essex. Postgraduates teachers come and go. What is important is that the association is there to provide future support in the struggle to improve the clarity, uniformity and fairness of gta conditions of employment.
Rebecca Taylor, Martin Bewick, and Lynne Pettinger are swt executive committee members
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