Teaching in Higher Ed for $7.50 an hour


I’ve written before of the low pay and miserable working conditions of the most common sort of professor in higher education: the adjunct. They don’t even get the tile of “professor” although they do the same work, and have earned the title.

The next most common professor also does much the same work, but has yet to earn the degree. This is the graduate student instructor. Now, don’t get me wrong, even without the graduate degree these guys are generally quite capable of teaching the high school level courses that they’re typically assigned. Much like adjuncts, their pay is minimal, although at least their (very expensive) graduate tuition is covered.

I’m ok with low-pay-for-free-tuition, but do keep in mind that undergraduate tuition has risen to stratospheric levels: shouldn’t this kind of price guarantee the highest quality teachers in the courses, especially those introductory courses with the weakest students, the students who need it the most? Instead, that tuition pays for someone with minimal (or no) teaching experience. A breakdown of the pay at an hourly level reveals just how bad it is:

Teaching at a university means constant pressure – for about £5 an hour —that’s about $7.50 an hour, in our ever depreciating currency

As is so often the case, the writer of the article criticizing what’s going on in higher ed is posting anonymously…she has to, she works in higher ed.

“I have experienced this first-hand. In my first year I was offered just one class, while my male colleagues had, on average, three or four seminar groups. When I pointed this out to my head of department, I received a terrifying email suggesting that I had transgressed by contacting them,…”

This is actually interesting: I’ve seen plenty of pro-female discrimination in higher ed, but apparently pro-male still happens in the UK. Well, it might, it’s hard to tell from this line, but the real takeaway here is how capricious it is to deal with admin—you don’t dare complain to admin, complaining only leads to punishment and retaliation. There’s a reason why most academics post their complaints anonymously, after all. At she got the memo about this early in her career.

It isn’t just the pay that’s ridiculous, it’s how little help the teacher can possibly give:

I also do a lot of marking, for which I receive a lump sum that equates to one hour per student. That means I have 60 minutes to mark four short essays and one long essay for each student. That’s 7.5 minutes for each assignment, to leave 30 minutes for each 3,000-word essay. I also get paid for “student contact” (replying to emails and attending meetings), but this is calculated as five hours for the term – that’s about 12 minutes per student, over three months.

So, the student (more likely, the taxpayer) pays a $1,000, probably much more, for approximately 12 minutes of personal help. All across the country, class sizes get larger and larger, and tuition only rises. The people teaching these larger classes quickly figure out that nobody in power actually cares if any student is being helped, and come to a decision: stop giving assignments.

Many courses now have no actual coursework in them, as is documented. Even with this documentation, there’s been no movement to put actual coursework back into college classes. Again, nobody in power actually cares about education, which is why close to half of college students leave college, even after 6 years of college classes, with no measurable improvement in the skills they had leaving high school. Again, this is documented.

Most of the students I teach are in their first term of university. They, of course, need much more than 12 minutes of my time over three months. And it often takes me far longer than 7.5 minutes to simply work out what it is they are driving at in their submitted work, before I can even begin to provide useful feedback.

Because these grad students don’t have degrees, they’re generally assigned to the lowest level courses, which are, indeed, the courses with students that need help the most. Think about that: because of the sheer size of the class, you’ve got a few minutes to read the paper, and then whatever’s left over to try to help the student. A professor will quickly realize “I shouldn’t even bother assigning a paper,” but a grad student has no option, since he (or she, in this case) must follow the guidelines set by the department.

For most disciplines, this really is what serves as teacher training: you learn to go through massive piles of papers as quickly as possible, because there is absolutely no other way to do the job.

Sometimes I am teaching topics that I have never studied. In these weeks, providing my students with a good seminar takes considerably more than one hour to prepare. In order to do my job to a basic level of acceptability – never mind the “excellence” of the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef) – my £14 an hour ends up as more like £5 an hour.

Again, since these are graduate students, they really don’t know everything, so often are just an hour or two ahead of the students in the material. It happens even to professors, and leads to a stressful semester, I admit.

But it happens a lot to a grad student, and that’s when that miserable pay really hurts…at least when you flip burgers, you’re not studying all the time. Of course, in theory, the grad student is studying for a better life, but when you know that after you get the degree, you’re going to be an adjunct making the same pay you did as a grad student, little different than flipping burgers…the pointlessness of it all starts to hit home, and it doesn’t get any better once you start having to make payments on the student loan you took out to get the undergraduate degree that let you get in the system to work for nothing while you’re getting the graduate degree that let you teach in the system where you’re paid almost nothing…seriously, there’s a real problem in this structure.

The government is intent on pushing for a competitive marketised system, in which measures…assess teaching according to student (customer) feedback and graduate earnings data.

And, yes, just like the professors, the poor grad student is subjected to being evaluated not by other professors, actual experts, but instead by the student’s evaluation of teaching. Once again, the professor with control of the course, upon realizing that his job is determined by making happy customers, will just remove course requirements…but the grad student doesn’t have that option.

The end result of this situation is the grad student has come to realize what, ultimately, is higher education today:

And this, I suppose, is the basis of any truly profitable market place: absolute exploitation.