Teaching Assistants decry “exploitative employment practices” in Trinity

Casual teaching staff raise questions on the legality of their employment

Several teaching assistants in Trinity have said they feel “exploited” and “undervalued” in the way they are treated by College, citing issues which ranged from the precarity of their employment status, to questioning the legality of the fact that they are employed without receiving their terms of employment in writing.

TAs are employed by Trinity to give seminars, lab demonstrations and occasionally lectures, as well as mark students’ work. They are paid hourly for their work and are usually PhD students studying at Trinity or academics who have recently received their PhD.

TAs receive no guarantee as to the number of hours they will get each term and do not receive sick pay or a pension. One TA currently working in Trinity described the insecurity that they felt due to this arrangement, stating “we cannot afford to get sick, or take time off for family emergencies”.

Most teaching assistants earn less than €10,000 per year, leading many to seek other forms of part-time employment. Another TA in employment by Trinity reported feeling the quality of their teaching hampered by financial pressures, telling Trinity News that they “really want to give the students in my class good tutorial teaching, and help them discuss and understand the material, but sometimes at the back of my mind, I’m just trying to remember which bill is due when, and if I have enough coming in that month to cover it”.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), a union that represents a number of TAs, have said that they are “hugely concerned” with the way that casual teaching staff are treated.

Speaking to Trinity News, Joan Donegan, the general secretary of the union, said that IFUT have “been trying to get as many such exploited staff as possible to join with us and work together to fight this scourge”, adding that the union had changed its subscription rates for the specific purpose of making it feasible for academic and teaching staff on extremely low earnings to join. She urged all teaching assistants to contact the union.

Donegan said of the situation that teaching assistants face that “we need to be unequivocal about calling it exploitation because that is what it is. And it is precisely because ‘exploitation’ is such a loaded and shaming word that we need to highlight it at every opportunity because we know that if we can make a university ashamed of how it is treating its staff we are well on the way to getting them to desist from the exploitation.”

The word “exploitation” was used by several TAs who spoke to Trinity News, including by Ciaran O’Rourke who worked as a teaching assistant for the School of English for the academic years 2017/18 and 2018/19 and was also a Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) representative during that time. O’Rourke said that the use of casual teaching staff is in his view “scandalous” and “lays bare the ingrained exploitation on which the system of higher learning in Ireland now seems to be based”.

O’Rourke stated that “without the work that teaching assistants provide, the School of English would be unable to function” and yet there is “vast disparity” in wages and job security between casual and permanent teaching staff.

Lauren McDonald, a Sociology and Social Policy graduate from Trinity who researched precarious work in academia for her dissertation, said that a recurring theme while conducting her research was that precarious staff were afraid to speak out. McDonald, who interviewed over 40 precarious staff from different Irish institutions, outlined that there is “such a fear about speaking out on even the smallest issues” due to the lack of job security, and many felt like they would be either “marginalised” or “out the door” for raising concerns.

McDonald said that the main issue faced by precarious staff was that their income “wasn’t enough to live on” and that many were still living with their parents “well into their 30s”. She said that some precarious staff were in a stable housing situation because they had come to academia late or were reliant on a spouse.

McDonald told Trinity News that “mental health issues were huge across the board” for the staff that she spoke to and that many were supplementing their income with social welfare which brought a huge amount of “anger and embarrassment”.

Teaching assistants currently working in Trinity have also raised questions about the legality of the fact that they do not receive their terms of employment in writing.

The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which was passed in 2018 and came into effect in March of 2019, states that employers must provide employees with a statement of five core terms of employment in writing within five days of starting employment and a written statement of 10 remaining terms of employment within two months of starting work.

These terms include information such as the method for calculating pay, whether the employer offers sick pay, and the period of notice to be given by an employer or employee. However, teaching assistants in Trinity who are employed as casual hours staff have told Trinity News that they do not currently receive this information from College.

A College spokesperson stated that Trinity now has the policy of issuing all staff, including casual staff, with a written statement regarding their terms of employment “from the beginning of this year in accordance with recent legislation”.

However, the legislation came into effect in March of last year and has therefore been in place for over 10 months. In addition to that, before the new legislation came into effect, the previous requirement for employers was to offer 15 terms of employment within two months of an employee starting work, rather than issuing five “core terms” within five days and a further 10 term within two months, meaning that some form of written statement listing terms of employment has been a legal requirement since 1994.

The failure of College to provide this information has been described by one teaching assistant currently working in College as “a denial of our rights” and ascribed it to a wider pattern of neglect and mistreatment of casual teaching staff in Trinity.

Niall Gillespie, who was employed as a teaching assistant in Trinity’s School of English for several years up until 2014 raised the issue of the allocation of hours for casual teaching staff. Gillespie told Trinity News he felt that “the allocation of hours was always completely arbitrary and not in the slightest transparent”. He stated that TAs “were not told what hours they would get until very close to teaching term” adding that this was “a constant source of frustration for TAs”.

Based on conversations with teaching assistants currently working in Trinity, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, it would seem that this issue remains a source of frustration. One current TA stated that “while it is understandable that hours will fluctuate from term to term, they often appear to be assigned almost randomly”, while another described feeling “subject to the whim of the department as to how many tutorials we get to teach”.

Speaking to Trinity News, representatives from the School of English said that everyone who applies to teach in the school and is eligible to do so is given hours. They explained that the reasons that there are differences in the number of tutorials that TAs might get are that there are different numbers of students who take each of the modules meaning there are therefore a greater or lesser amount of tutorials available. They also noted that the school has to work round the other commitments of teaching assistants, which means that they may be able to take fewer tutorials. They added: “We try to work best with the situations that the TAs themselves are in.”

While most accept that the casualisation of teaching staff is an issue that goes far beyond Trinity, with IFUT describing it as a “worldwide phenomenon”, teaching assistants in Trinity do not accept that College does not hold any of the blame. Ciaran O’Rourke told Trinity News that the widespread nature of the issue “does not excuse Trinity from answerability as to why they are enforcing and specifically benefitting from exploitative employment practices”.

A teaching assistant currently working in Trinity said that “many TAs are in similar circumstances throughout Ireland and the rest of Europe and the US, so I’m not trying to make out that I’m a special case. I’m just fed up at this point. If nothing changes soon, I’m going to have to leave it behind.”

Several TAs also felt that that their concerns were not recognised or taken seriously by either permanent staff or College hierarchy. One Trinity TA stated simply that “if permanent staff spoke out collectively, I’m sure the situation would change. They don’t.”

O’Rourke summarised the attitudes of permanent staff to the TA situation as “everyone’s over-stretched, we should know”, or that “this is a college-wide issue, it’s out of our control”.

He added that “there is a concern among TAs that overt criticism of School policy, however justified, might ultimately result in personal tension with course coordinators, or that they may not be allocated teaching hours in future”.

This is a concern shared by IFUT who say that “TAs feel so vulnerable that they are afraid that if they ‘rock the boat’ they might not have their employment renewed”.

Gillespie stated that “in general, permanent teaching staff do not want to know about the conditions the TAs are working under, their pay, etc., nor could they care less”.

A teaching assistant currently in Trinity said that in their experience “individual members of staff generally deal well with TAs” but noted that “the academic and administrative structure to the college seems to have little regard for our welfare or even our ability to work effectively,” another added that they “don’t feel like a valued member of staff”.

The representatives from the School of English said it was “unfortunate” that teaching assistants had felt that there was an unsympathetic attitude towards them among permanent staff, adding that the school “has always been very strong advocating for better conditions for casual staff in the sector”. They also noted that it is a “global problem in the higher education sector…that the sector has to have a solution for”.

As casual staff are considerably cheaper to employ than permanent staff, the continued reliance on casual staff is perhaps another symptom of a higher education sector under considerable financial strain.

Finn Purdy

Finn Purdy is the current Deputy Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister English Studies student, and a former News Editor and Assistant News Editor.