Posted on Wed 09 Nov 2016 at 11:00 by Christopher Carter
A bizarre myth still persists that postgraduates are somehow “second-class citizens” on UK campuses, when nothing could be further from the truth. Oftentimes they make up a significant proportion of the student body and, if the price of study truly did correlate with students’ perceived ‘worth’ or importance to universities, PGs would likely be paraded around on thrones! (Note to self: compose potential motion for future SU Referendum…)
However, despite gaining an all-too-brief moment of exposure when the unfair pay of Warwick’s PG teachers came under national scrutiny, it perhaps goes without saying that postgraduates are often something of a ‘silent casualty’ of Higher Education reforms. Given that the focus is largely placed on the negative effect of undergraduate tuition fees, it’s therefore worth reiterating once again just how big an impact the government’s HE Bill is likely to have on the postgraduate community – and how this will in turn affect all students.
Each year, postgraduates who teach are asked to perform more and more duties: their departments demand it, and - thanks to skyrocketing fees and the attendant spike in expectations - their students expect it. They are asked to give more feedback, host more lectures and seminars, provide more office hours and undertake more preparation for all of the above. By and large, postgraduates would – as indeed most people would in an equitable system – presumably be happy to do so, were they paid fairly and appropriately. Instead, despite the fact that postgraduate teachers now provide most of the contact hours for undergraduate students, they are still not even recognised or treated as employees. At best, they can expect to earn less than a true living wage. At worst, they earn less than even a minimum wage or end up working many hours unpaid – all this alongside having to balance their own studies and personal lives.
They do this because they genuinely care about the welfare, progress and performance of their students. If only the government and HE institutions did the same. Instead, they seek to impose a whole new level of pressure in the form of the so-called ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF). In essence, the TEF is little more than a means by which universities are able to game the system to their financial advantage, relying as it does on unreliable metrics to shift institutions up and down league tables in order to charge higher fees. With the advent of the TEF, pressure to perform in line with an increasingly narrow set of expectations will increase exponentially for postgraduate teachers. Make no mistake, it does not measure teaching quality in any way, shape or form – this is something which is extremely difficult to gauge at the best of times. Instead, it forces institutions to gear tutors towards achieving a positive National Student Survey (NSS) score, together with all the attendant ‘performance management’ implications this entails.
The future discipline levels of TEF assessment will only make things worse. The NSS, with all its bribes, incentives and (mis)leading questions, basically displays all the accuracy of an educator “teaching to the test” – while the results may demonstrate a superficial level of performance, they fail to reflect a deeper understanding. Combined, the effects are hugely detrimental to the student body as a whole: they essentially discourage anything other than ‘safe’ teaching by imposing so many constraints on lecturers, markers and seminar leaders. Like any superficial stats-based system used to formulate policy, both the NSS and TEF address only the most rudimentary surface issues, rather than digging any deeper (watch Season 3 of The Wire if you don’t believe me. The TEF is, to quote Senator Clay Davis, essentially little more than a massive pile of “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiitttttt”.)
Although you’d be hard-pushed to find many current students willing to argue that they like paying fees, even staunch advocates of a marketised system aren’t able to justify the ill-effects of this on the level of ‘service’ being provided – it’s not hard to see that the “value for money” you’re getting lessens considerably when your tutor is overworked, underpaid or forced to skimp on the amount of attention they’re able to give your work.
There is, of course, a considerable human toll to all of this. The mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate students is already notoriously poor: as noted previously by Chloe, over 40% of Taught Postgraduates “often or always” worry about money - hardly surprising given the astronomical (and highly variable!) fee-rates for Masters courses, or the fact that many PGs have dependents to support and thus may have to juggle additional work-life commitments. At doctoral level, 40% say their mental health worsens when studying for a PhD, while 49% say they suffer from mental health problems. Many postgraduates work additional jobs just to make basic ends meet. And of course, the rush to take on as many new postgrads as possible at the start of each academic year – complete with the bounteous financial rewards this has for parent institutions – has led to a housing crisis which has seen hundreds of new students arriving at Warwick homeless over the last few years. “Welcome to Higher Education – please be sure to pay in full upfront! We hope you enjoy your stay… wherever that may be.”
As Luke suggested in his recent blog, it’s so easy nowadays to look at issues facing a certain section of the student community and think that it doesn’t apply to you – particularly so for undergraduates when it comes to some of the challenges faced by PG students. However, chances are that you will be taught by a postgraduate at some stage during your time at Warwick; a postgraduate student may also be your Block Warden, Resident Tutor, or a good friend from a Sports Club or Society. You may go on to become one yourself in the coming years – in which case, you will end up reaping what we allow to be sown during this critical period. Put simply, this is everyone’s struggle, and it’s up to all of us to fight it.
Undergraduate and postgraduate students, officers and staff from Warwick are marching at the NUS National Demo on #Nov19 in opposition to this government’s disastrous Higher Education proposals. We hope you’ll join us in standing up for your future - discounted coach travel is available for just £5 at https://www.warwicksu.com/ents/event/13970/.