‘Heartbreaking’: Edinburgh students left without help during exam season due to unpaid staff

‘I simply don’t have time to talk to the students’

Students at the University of Edinburgh have been left without academic help during exam season, as some staff contracts mean they are not paid to offer advice outside of class.

Many junior academic staff are on so-called Guaranteed Hours (GH) contracts, and are therefore only paid to provide an exact number of hours teaching per week, meaning help during exam season when classes don’t occur is often denied or undertaken for free.

One tutor told their students not to contact them despite upcoming exams and assessment deadlines, because “the university doesn’t think it’s necessary to pay me during exam period”, The Edinburgh Tab can reveal (pictured).

Edinburgh University says any member staff who feels they are undertaking work without pay should contact their school’s management.

Most Scottish universities, including Edinburgh, assess students before the Christmas break, rather than in January as in England. This means teaching ends at the end of November, after which students sit their exams and meet coursework deadlines.

Course tutors are often the first point of contact for students seeking help with their studies, as they have been teaching them all semester. This contact is then removed as soon as teaching ends and exam season begins, if a tutor is on a GH contract.

Senior course lecturers are still available, but some struggle to provide assistance to large courses of students by themselves.

Speaking to The Edinburgh Tab, one tutor said they often work for free during this time to give students help, but are finding it harder to do so, given the rising cost of living.

“More recently, I’m saying no and it’s heartbreaking. The reality is that I’m doing other jobs in this period to pay my bills and I simply don’t have time to talk to the students”, they said.

The University College Union’s (UCU) Anti-Casualisation Officer at Edinburgh, Jonny Dennis, said tutors are “sometimes the only person whom they feel comfortable asking questions”, adding they are “willing and able to do the work, but they should be paid for it.”

What is a Guaranteed Hours (GH) contract?

At the University of Edinburgh, many PhD students are employed to work as tutors on some of the larger courses in some schools. This means as well as weekly lectures delivered by a senior academic, students will have an hour session with a PhD student who specialises in the subject, and can offer further advice and guidance.

They are paid by the hour on GH contracts. They are paid for one hour of teaching per tutorial, one hour for preparation, and 30 minutes for admin.

This means if tutorials are not taking place (such as during exam season), tutors will not be paid. Not all students are aware of this, and might continue to request help from their tutor via email.

GH contracts also pay staff to mark assignments, with time allocated to assignments of different lengths:

  • 0 – 1499 words: 20 minutes
  • 1500 – 1999: 30 minutes
  • 2000 – 2999: 45 minutes
  • 3000 – 3999: 60 minutes

A current employee said this time allocation for tutorials is not sufficient for good teaching, as “the quality of the tutorial will not be the same because we don’t have enough time to prepare and rest”.

Another recalled: “I once had to read four review articles on a topic, choose one for a tutorial, prepare a lesson plan, make all the materials for the lesson including Powerpoints, activities, and worksheets, then upload it to Learn, all within one hour of preparation time.”

UCU Edinburgh is calling on the university to end the one hour time limit on tutorial preparation.

Staff have told The Edinburgh Tab they are forced to strike a “tricky and unfair balance between making sure students get the support they need and payment for work done”.

More generally, academic staff complain of increasing workloads, work casualisation, and low pay at the university. This is the cause of ongoing industrial action in the university sector across the UK, organised by the UCU.

The Edinburgh Tab has learned of GH staff even choosing to use their allocated 18 hours of ‘self-study’ paid time per semester to help students.

“We need to claim in the system every work activity, which is stressful, more unpaid work, and often the school staff responsible for approval get hour hours wrong and takes extra unpaid time to fix.”

These complaints arise following months of reports of staff going mistakenly unpaid due to severe administrative issues with the university’s new Payment and Money finance system.

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said: “We want to provide the best experience to our students, including the support they receive during every aspect of their studies. The level of tutoring support is determined by Schools based on requirements for each course.

“If any student feels they are not receiving the level of support they require, we ask that they raise this with their School. We are always looking to improve and continually ask for feedback from our students and staff.

“We have had an agreement in place with UCU since 2019 to ensure consistency of treatment for Guaranteed Hours staff in teaching and research-focused roles. If a staff member feels they are being asked to carry out work without pay, they should raise this with their School’s management team and HR.”

UCU Edinburgh’s Anti-Casualisation Officer, Jonny Dennis, said: “UCU Edinburgh recognises that GH work is an essential component of professional development for PGRs. It enables undergraduates to have more direct contact with knowledgeable tutors/demonstrators and to have their work marked by enthusiastic PGRs.

“However, PGRs don’t always get paid for all the work they do. From personal experience as GH tutor, not enough paid preparation time is allocated to PGRs, who spend hours preparing for a tutorial and only get paid for 1-hour at maximum.

“PGRs also spend time helping students after tutorials have ended and answer additional questions by email or in person. We are often the only academic that students will talk to during their course. Because of the power dynamic between Professor/lecturer and student, PGR tutors/demonstrators are sometimes the only person whom they feel comfortable asking questions.

“All this means that PGRs on GH contracts will spend additional unpaid time helping students. They are willing and able to do the work, but they should be paid for it. I think there are a few ways to address this including: removing 1-hour limit on preparation time, paying PGRs to hold “office hours”, scheduling longer tutorials and providing additional tutorials/workshops for students to attend closer to exam time.”

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