Contrary to popular belief, teaching and lecturing at university by no means automatically guarantees secure employment, ample time to pursue research, and a cosy office in which to do it. Over the past decade or so, especially since the recession in 2008/09, Irish universities, and indeed universities throughout the world, have begun to rely more and more on hourly paid or temporary staff to cover tutorials, seminars, lectures, and lab sessions. Teaching assistants, or “TAs”, are generally PhD students or those who have completed their doctorates but have yet to pin down one of the dwindling number of full-time permanent jobs available. TAs and other “casual” hourly-paid employees now make up a significant proportion, in some cases more than 50%, of all university teaching and research staff.
““Casual” staff members often suffer from a range of stress-induced physical and mental-health problems”
While “casual” work can offer a much-needed bridge between full-time education and full-time employment, such stable employment is becoming increasingly scarce, as university administrations have come to understand that they can pay a number of TAs for a fraction of what a full-time, permanent member of staff, with rights, benefits, and a pension would cost them. Thousands of highly qualified people are finding themselves stuck in an endless loop of short-term contracts and hourly paid work due to a sheer lack of other opportunities. These lecturers and researchers are classed as somehow lesser, stuck on the bottom rung of a “flexible”, cost-effective, two-tier system that means they get no guarantee of equivalent (or any) work from one semester to the next. This cohort is chronically underpaid, as getting paid by the hour means you don’t earn anything over the holiday period. “Casual” staff members often suffer from a range of stress-induced physical and mental-health problems, as they try to juggle teaching in a number of universities with researching and publishing enough to land that elusive permanent post.
Admittedly, those of us who have experienced the stress and disorder of teaching across a few different institutions or departments are well aware that in terms of money, workload, and respect, Trinity is by no means the worst place to teach. Depending on the School, hourly rates can be comparatively high, as are those for marking. That said, similar Schools in other universities cover things like office hours in which to meet students, attendance at lectures, and module meetings. In fact, before the economic crash of 2008, Trinity compensated TAs for class preparation, and there was more funding available for research-related travel and conference attendance. While such payments were inadequate to cover the hours that tutors have to spend reading, preparing lesson plans, responding to student queries, keeping track of attendance, and researching and writing, it was a welcome acknowledgement that being a precarious academic entails much more than simply showing up to class. The loss of such additional payments was paralleled over a decade ago by pay cuts for permanent staff, but pay restoration is beginning to make up for the hardship of the recession for this sector of university employees. Hourly paid TAs have seen no such return to pre-crash rates, and the 2016 Cush Report on Fixed-Term and Part-Time Employment in Lecturing has had limited positive impact. If anything, the report encourages universities to offer shorter and shorter contracts to ensure that these employees never accrue any rights.
“Most TAs early less than €10,000 a year, despite covering the bulk of Fresher small-group teaching in many Schools across Trinity, and certainly in the Arts and Humanities.”
For many working in Trinity, this situation has been exacerbated by the combined pressures of the Trinity Education Project and Dublin’s housing crisis. TAs’ marking loads have, in some instances, more than doubled, while rates of pay remain the same, despite the fact that marking essays and other assignments in the middle of the semester is far more onerous and difficult to complete than was the case when most work would come in outside of teaching weeks. Feeling under pressure and undervalued is by no means encouraging those coming up through PhDs to stay in a sector that isn’t paying them even a quarter of what they need to pay rent in Dublin. Many TAs early less than €10,000 a year, despite covering the bulk of Fresher small-group teaching in many Schools across Trinity, and certainly in the Arts and Humanities.
Then there’s the lack of respect. Academia likes to set itself up as a meritocracy, but in most cases, luck is most of what separates permanent staff from the precariat, while the latter are denied the kudos that comes with a “proper” academic job, no matter how many books or articles they produce. However, many of us stay, hoping that if we give it one more year, the right job will come up at the right time, and we’ll get a foot in the door somewhere that might then lead to a permanent position. We also stick it out because we love the work, we’re good at it, it’s what we’ve been trained to do, and it’s incredibly rewarding, both intellectually and personally.
“It’s difficult not to feel that college should be taking a stand against the casualisation of the academic workforce and the erosion, for the sake of profit, of the academic profession as a profession.”
The way that Arts and Humanities in particular are taught in Trinity is so consistently inspiring, left-leaning, even revolutionary, that it’s difficult not to feel that college should be taking a stand against the casualisation of the academic workforce and the erosion, for the sake of profit, of the academic profession as a profession. Doing so would have manifold positive effects. Most TAs run around teaching multiple courses with conflicting timetables in two or more campuses, frequently with nowhere to sit between classes, and often aren’t in a position to meet students one-on-one, since they aren’t paid to do so and don’t have an office to do it in. This has a serious impact on the college experience, and as fewer and fewer full-time permanent lecturing and research positions become available globally, those in secure jobs are finding themselves under mounting pressure. Everyone, in other words, is losing out in this system, including students.
The Leaving Certificate is an almost inescapable rite of passage in this country, and for many, college is the reward for years of hard work and stress. Surely, then, we should be trying to make the experience of going to college as easy to navigate and as human and welcoming as possible. TAs are often at the front line of these student experiences, and untenable working conditions and high turnover are making it difficult for both TAs and permanent academic staff to devote the time and energy needed to ensure that everyone is supported and encouraged to reach their full potential. Just because other countries, or even other universities around us, are happy to treat non-permanent teaching and research staff poorly, that doesn’t mean that Trinity should too.