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Exciting Opportunities or the Ever Present Potential of Exploitation? Academia Unveiled

November 9, 2015

In the spring of 2015, the Department of Philosophy and Art History at a well known University in the East of England, UK, recruited a graduate teacher on a zero-hour contract. The position required the successful candidate to research, design, write, and deliver an entire spring term course for 2016. This was advertised as an exciting opportunity for a graduate teacher to prove their worth and ability to deliver a course that they had the freedom of designing.

The job advertisement required a CV, a Cover Letter, and a detailed outline of the proposed module. This was required before candidates were even selected for interviews. To research, design, and outline a detailed plan in draft takes at least two weeks of intensive reading and working out a week by week plan. The time invested in designing the module, and finalizing the application already began to outweigh any potential for paid work. Moreover, candidates handed over their ideas and intellectual property through the carefully chosen reading list and module description.

During the interview, candidates were told that the department made a mistake and that the course advertised was already being taught in the autumn on 2015.

Candidates were asked to come up with an entirely new idea for a module during the interview. With no time to prepare, and under pressure to think quick, the results were drafted rather than thought through.

Further, the interview panel of three lecturers consisted of two that did not teach the relevant discipline. The lecturers who were in charge of the module were not present, leading to a lack in representation of the discipline and a potential one sided approach in the selection process.

Throughout the interview, no mention was made about any paid work that designing this module would involve and questions to the effect were answered vaguely. Upon mentioning that the responsibilities of the post seem to outweigh the job title, it was repeated that this was an exciting opportunity.

The feedback received for unsuccessful candidates included that the ideas for a new module, that they had to conceive during the course of the interview, were not thought through or conceptualized. Queries about the composition of the interview panel and selection process received vague answers. These included that this mirrored the reality in the Academia of candidates being interviewed by non-experts in their field.

The question about payment for preparation time was answered equally evasive referring to a ‘formula’ used by the university to work out payment for time spent researching and designing the module. No further details were disclosed.

The salary offered was more than for a Graduate Teacher Assistant position, however, the vague and evasive way in which queries were dealt with left a lot to be desired. The process seemed to be ensuring that Equal Opportunities were respected, while the interview panel already had a candidate in mind for the position all along. This was reflected in the fact that potential candidates were approached and encouraged to apply, however, the result was mired in ambiguity and half hearted justifications for the selection of candidates.

This manner of recruiting graduates for positions that are in fact jobs for Lecturers, was a less than transparent process. Suspicions arose with the demand to research and design a detailed module, before an interview was even offered. No provisions were made to offer inexperienced graduates support to make an application. Further, the mistake made by the department in regards to the wrong module being advertised led to unnecessary, and unproductive outcomes.

The academia, much like the art world, exploits its workers and demands more than it pays for. Zero hour contracts, of which this position is an example, are a standard way for graduates and academics to seek out a living under precarious working conditions. The workload resulting from a position such as the one outlined here, far outweigh the prestige, experience, and remuneration they promise. GTA’s are continuously overworked and underpaid, and the prospects of a permanent position in the academia, after successfully completing studies, are precious few.

Zero hour contracts are a short term solution. Together with the promise of experience and “an exciting opportunity” to prove one’s ability and worth, these modes of exploitation have become a way to drive the academia forward based on cheap labour and the good will of inexperienced graduates.

If you have witnessed similar cases or have been directly affected by these or similar conditions, speak up and insist on equal pay and equal working conditions!

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