Lecturer Wanted, £10 an hour

Harry Stopes

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.


  • 26 June 2017 at 5:17pm
    R. B. says:
    Sad indeed to report that, as an unemployed U.S. academic, my first reaction after reading the "plumbing new depths" terms of this job was to think it didn't sound all that bad. The race to the bottom is international.

  • 27 June 2017 at 4:47am
    LTK says:
    The last position sounds deeply unappealing. Either they've gone too low and are going to struggle to get a suitable candidate or else the price is right because the supply of prospective lecturers is too high. A problem of oversupply well-addressed by low* wages/prices.

    (*For professionals. £40k FTE is far above the national average wage which I believe is circa £26k for a full time job.)

  • 27 June 2017 at 11:02am
    rm1 says:
    This is especially worrying given the high fees charged by NCH which would presumably entitle the students to a first class service which £10 an hour is unlikely to generate. Another instance of a privatised service being more expensive and worse than its public equivalent perhaps ?

  • 27 June 2017 at 4:50pm
    masockwell says:
    I currently hire certified welders at $18.60/hr (~14.5BP/hr). No advanced degree required. Before you started this career path, did you investigate the what the potential earnings could be?

  • 27 June 2017 at 6:08pm
    Blackorpheus7 says:
    Got my PhD in '68, the halcyon year, and am a professor of literature in a California university. Nearly all of the young PhDs I know are massively in debt (50 to 200,000 dollars) and either out of work or teaching basic courses at several 2-year
    universities to keep from being homeless.

  • 27 June 2017 at 9:15pm
    frank scott says:
    whatever her personal flaws, or assets for that matter, the problem of private profits available to the builders of luxury and sub-standard housing is much greater than those of her personal nature..we also profit from killing people and sometimes saving lives but wouldn't things be better if we took the profits out of the death business? if corbyn can rise to her position, his personal qualities will also matter little unless he leads the people to confront that system and not simply the personalities who act as management while we continue laboring for them.

  • 28 June 2017 at 9:28am
    XopherO says:
    (I think the last post is in the wrong blog!)

    What about the quality of the student experience in all this? A PhD is not a teaching qualification as many of us who have had to put up with many tedious hours of lectures will know. In fact those who go for PhDs usually want to become a researcher, not a teacher, and are often irritated to find the teaching interferes with their 'real job'. Some universities even use postgrad students to teach undergrads, to 'protect' the research time of their FT staff.

    Most UK universities offer some kind of induction into teaching and learning methods, supported by research evidence in that field, to new FT staff - some are better (more serious?) than others.

    So even putting hours of work into preparation is no guarantee that the students will learn much. There are simple things such as: student attention-span falls sharply after 15 minutes of the same thing (such as a droning lecturer), also recall falls to around 20% within seven days if no provision for reinforcement of the material is made. If you examine student notes of lectures you can see that they are more often than not inadequate for reinforcement or revision.

    The best way to deal with these penny-pinching, student-betraying offers of employment is to ignore them. Or maybe write a letter, including your CV explaining why you are not applying - perhaps a bit suicidal in this day and age of grossly overpaid vice-chancellors and their yes-men.

  • 28 June 2017 at 2:29pm
    Pilot says:
    So don’t take the job, Harry! I imagine you’ve grasped the notion of supply and demand, over all those years of study and sacrifice, culminating in your PhD. PhD in what, by the way? Your whinge doesn’t mention a particular field of excellence. One presumes that if financial reward was your ultimate objective, your choice of study would surely follow. Am I alone if finding the socialist inclinations of highly subsidised academics to be comprehensively tiresome?

    • 29 June 2017 at 11:09am
      semitone says: @ Pilot
      No, Pilot, you're not alone. There's a whole Daily Mail full of people who think just like you, why don't you pop over there now?

    • 29 June 2017 at 12:17pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Pilot
      If by "highly subsidised" you mean "highly paid", perhaps you'd like to explain how you reconcile this assertion with the article you just read.

    • 2 July 2017 at 10:56am
      outofdate says: @ Harry Stopes
      Perhaps you'd like to put it to a referendum. There are good arguments for ditching the study of Classics, for example, and good arguments for subsidising it -- long-term benefits for a civilisation, short-term benefits for the students' inner lives -- but no argument for throwing it open to market forces. The brain will drain, it's a fact, nothing even you salt-of-the-earthers can do about it.

    • 2 July 2017 at 11:32am
      outofdate says: @ outofdate
      Woops, sorry, I meant to reply to Pilot.

  • 29 June 2017 at 8:44pm
    coprolite says:
    i agree that the last sentence was a bit Maily, but the supply and demand bit was spot on. there are lots of people who like such airy fairy natrative subjects and who would like to do an undemanding job. Crucially, there is little demand from commercial sectors. There is a large over supply of labour so the market clearing rate goes down.

    I doubt that the same article could be written about posts in, say, mechanical engineering.

  • 1 July 2017 at 1:35pm
    outofdate says:
    A C Grayling has lovely hair and remarkably short legs. I wonder if there's a popular saying that might be adapted to the situation.

  • 1 July 2017 at 5:36pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I don't have a saying, but I saw him from a café in Bayley Street where I was having lunch, walking towards his innovative private university in Bedford Square. His swept-back silver locks rested on the shoulders of an expensive looking grey jacket so long-waisted that his legs appeared EXTREMELY short. I had the feeling that his wife might have remarked gently on the absurdity of his getup but that he didn't believe her.

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