Having finished my PhD, I’m looking for a job, checking the academic recruitment websites every few days and keeping an ear out for teaching assistant positions. Most jobs with a September start advertised this late in the year are part-time and fixed-term. A Russell Group university in London, for instance, has been looking for a lecturer in British Intellectual and Cultural History, who will be paid the equivalent of £40,000 a year. On a half-time contract over ten months, they'll get about £16,700: just enough for a single person to be able to afford to live in London, according to the Living Wage Foundation. They will probably be able to pick up some more work, but their chances of reaching a full-time entry-level lecturer's salary (£32,004, according to the nationally agreed pay scale) are slim. It's more likely that they will be forced to use most of their unpaid time to do the research on which their prospects of a future academic career hang. Problems of this kind in academic employment are not new.

But another vacancy which recently closed appears to plumb new depths. The New College of the Humanities, an 'innovative' private university in Bloomsbury, was looking for a visiting lecturer to teach a course in British Constitutional and Political History Since 1895. They plan to pay this person £3000 for a post lasting ten months from 1 September. The role involves 40 to 45 hours of teaching: 20 one-hour lectures, 12 one-on-one tutorials, 10 seminars and a revision session in the summer term. Time for marking and administration is not included.

I wrote in, asking for more information. The 'learning objectives' for the module have already been agreed, I was told, but 'there is no pre-existing content from other colleagues, and the successful candidate will have the chance to stamp her or his personality on the course.' In other words, whoever gets the job will have to design the course before teaching it. That’s likely to involve devising and framing the shape of the module as a whole, breaking the material up into lecture and seminar topics, writing the syllabus, compiling reading lists, ordering books, setting up online learning pages, setting essay questions, writing exam questions, answering students' emails, meeting with colleagues, as well as writing twenty lectures and ten seminar plans, before actually teaching them.

Some branches of the University and College Union have agreed with universities on ways to calculate the relationship between teaching hours and total workload. One model I’ve seen doesn't allow for designing a module from scratch (it's rare for universities to ask this of hourly-paid staff), but assumes it takes seven hours to write a one-hour lecture.

A history lecturer at UCL told me that designing a new module would take him 'about five weeks to work up if I were committed to doing this and nothing else – so c.180 hours, and that assumes that I could just write the lectures without doing any additional secondary research.' A colleague at Nottingham thought 190 hours would be 'a conservative estimate' for designing a course from scratch. Someone at King's said that 'under pressure, building a module from my own area of expertise, with easy access to a good library, with no major interruptions, and with somebody holding my family hostage for motivation, I reckon I could do it in 160 hrs.'

The NCH job could take around 300 hours to do properly, equivalent to an hourly rate of £10. The minimum rate for an hourly paid lecturer at UCL is £19.93; the minimum rate on nationally agreed UCU pay scales is £16.86. It’s possible that NCH operates with a different workload model, or expects its lecturers to spend less time on preparation than other universities do. I asked them but they never got back to me.

NCH isn’t a member of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, and doesn’t have a relationship with the UCU. It's under no obligation to conform to the standards of employment agreed by those two bodies – standards to which most all of the sector is at least nominally committed. There's no reason to believe the college is paying its academic staff less than the minimum wage. But given that it claims that 'what distinguishes [it] from other universities is the individual attention that academics can give to students and their work,' it's surprising to find it paying its staff so poorly.