Many TAs are overworked and underpaid, work many hours for free or at substantial pay cuts

A Trinity News investigation reveals the poor working conditions of teaching assistants in many departments, and the adverse effect on teaching quality


Reporting by William Foley and Nathaniel Zavin. 

  • Graduate students in many departments do much of their teaching work for free or at sub minimum wage rates.
  • Some doctoral students have been threatened with having their scholarship payments withheld or delayed if they don’t comply with the extended working hours.
  • Due to worsening conditions, many TAs can only spend ten to fifteen minutes per essay or exam script when correcting.

Teaching assistants (TAs) in several departments are being forced to work long hours on reduced wages or without pay, Trinity News has learned. Underfunded departments have been forced, in the face of cuts to budgets and teaching staff, to make many postgraduate students take on more teaching duties without compensation or at reduced pay. Under guidelines set down in the college calendar, graduate students may be required to assist in teaching at the discretion of their head of department or school, but such work will be “paid for at agreed College rates and must not exceed six hours per week on average, except in circumstances agreed between the graduate student, Head of School and Dean of Graduate Studies, as appropriate.” But, for many departments, graduate students work for well over six hours per week, often without pay or at reduced pay levels. Most of the increased duties seem to involve correcting of papers with the result that TAs, who also have to do their own research and seek paid employment elsewhere, cannot dedicate more than ten or fifteen minutes per essay or exam script. TAs feel frustrated that they cannot provide as good a service to students as they would like, and feel that teaching standards have declined in general.

Worsening working conditions, and worsening teaching quality

There is no detailed framework for the pay and conditions of graduate students in College, and their circumstances vary substantially between, and within, departments. Some departments, such as economics and maths, are better off than others and pay their graduate students for teaching hours and for marking and correcting. Others have been forced to pass stringent budget cuts on to the overworked and underpaid junior teaching staff. Paul, a TA in a department within the Faculty Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (ASSH), said that all PhDs on scholarships in his department have been working well in excess of the six hour maximum. The six hours are supposed to be worked in return for his scholarship money, which he describes as sufficient to pay the rent. In order to live he also has to work a part-time job. With the increased teaching hours, he spends twenty to thirty hours a week in his unpaid teaching job and his part-time job, leaving little time for his doctoral research.

Mark is a TA and PhD student in another ASSH department. He is paid for teaching, but not for the time he takes to prepare tutorials, which he says can be three to five hours per tutorial. There have also been cuts to to some components of teaching pay: “The pay for marking of scripts has been reduced. It was previously 8 euro per script, it’s now five. Some departments don’t pay for marking at all. So TAs are incentivised to take as little time as is physically possible, over marking.”  Students are thus unlikely to have their work evaluated in the most thorough and proper way. Their learning experience suffers too. With graduate students having to replace full-time lecturers in many modules, and having to take on larger classes and more tutorial hours, teaching quality will suffer.

Besides affecting the student experience, pay cuts for TAs have negatively affected their research as well. Jane, a TA in the ASSH faculty, says that “there have been a lot of people quitting because they can’t afford it financially”. A friend of hers almost dropped her PhD after taking two pay cuts: “If you come in promised a certain amount of money you should be guaranteed that amount of money the whole time. You are making specific financial decisions, it’s a huge time commitment, you’re not making money outside of it. And then your pay gets cut once or twice throughout a four year period? That’s pretty serious.” Paul points out that one component of international university ranking is PhD output, which can only suffer in light of worsening working conditions. Trinity has continually declined in the international rankings over the past few years. “We have fewer PhDs because we’re running out of funding for PhDs, and we even have a few master’s students teaching in some departments,” says Jane. “So they’re stretched, they’re teaching more than they have in the past and in many cases are paid less. So you’re just getting a general fatigue. I don’t think students are getting the quality of courses that they should.”

Departmental discrepancies and casualisation of academic labour

All the TAs who were interviewed were reluctant to blame department heads and senior lecturing staff, whom they described as being broadly sympathetic. They are unable to enforce College guidelines on working hours and pay because of funding cuts implemented by College, cuts which derive from the present government’s policy. Nevertheless, students in several departments have been told by department heads that their research funding will be cut if they do not comply with extended working hours and pay cuts. Even a delay of payment can engender substantial difficulties for doctoral students, who generally live “hand to mouth” according to Gianna Hegarty, vice-president of the Graduate Students’ Union. Hegarty says she ran for election on the issue of TA’s working conditions. She intends to conduct a comprehensive report on pay levels and working hours across College before the end of term. There are no centralised structures for determining and processing graduate students’ labour and the College calendar’s guidelines are “ambiguous and open to interpretation.”

Her project is complicated by the “very different experiences across schools and departments”, and also by the small size of departments and the general lecturing pool. “When you are a PhD student you are working very closely with academics who are important for your career,” she says. “You don’t want to burn bridges. It’s a very political situation.” Many graduate students, especially those who have their sights set on academia, want more teaching experience for their CVs and so are sometimes in competition with their peers and somewhat beholden to professors. “In the history department [where Hegarty was a PhD student] we would feel so lucky when we were given teaching,” she says. “It’s hard to take a stand.”

Third Level Workplace Watch is an organisation established by academics who work casual or precarious contracts. In a document sent to Trinity News, the group called for an end to short-term and zero hours contracts and for the implementation of pro rata pay levels. The organisation claims that 80% of full-time researchers are employed under precarious conditions and that doctoral students are used “as cheap labour and [dismissed] once they graduate.” One postdoctoral researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity to Trinity News for a previous article, said that “after eight years studying in the university, and graduating with a PhD, I have been left feeling that I have no future and that my contribution to research and training is not valued.”

All names of teaching assistants have been changed.

Matthew Mulligan contributed additional reporting to this piece.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.