“A six-hour-per-week contract will often demand double that amount of time.” The worker describing this appalling exploitation in their workplace was not employed in a factory during the times of Charles Dickens: they work in a university in 2019. Nor is this sort of regime of overwork confined to sections of the working class traditionally thought to be the most precarious, such as cleaners, who have been engaged in militant action at universities across the country. The quote above instead describes the working conditions of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs).

If you attend your lectures, you will have met them: running seminars, problem classes, and generally keeping an open ear to any problem students might face. All of this work is not sufficiently appreciated by KCL bosses. GTAs are currently expected to spend only two hours preparing a lesson, and mark 4000 words per hour. Further, they receive little to no formal training. We interviewed two activists within the Fair Pay 4 GTAs campaign, about their working conditions, how they plan to fight for improvements, and what students can do to help.

The campaign has set itself the immediate goals of doubling of paid preparation time, along with a halving of the amount of words GTAs are expected to mark per hour, as well as improvements to training. Fair Pay 4 GTAs is pursuing a variety of paths to achieve this, aimed mostly at gaining leverage for ongoing negotiations with King’s College London. In this respect, the activists recognise the need for solidarity with students, as well as other workers at KCL.

Years of cuts to state funding mean universities are more reliant than ever on fee income, which means the bosses are especially sensitive to bad publicity, which might decrease the university’s attractiveness to new students. For instance, KCL backed down from adopting a new GTA policy, which had been drawn up without consultation of a single GTA, after GTAs and students mobilised quickly and forcefully against it. This has already led to GTAs finding more of an audience for their grievances within the college, although they “have had to fight hard”, in the words of activists.

This is indicative of a wider pattern in KCL management’s conduct towards its workers. While feigning sympathy and understanding for workers’ concerns, management is in reality very reluctant to make concessions, will only do so when public pressure is applied and even then, seeks to stall and undermine progress at every turn. This is illustrated, for example, by the bosses’ recent attempt to drive a wedge between outsourced cleaners on different campuses. Meanwhile, as the campaigners point out, “GTAs have agitated for change since 2013”, and while certain advances have been made, evidently much remains to be done!

For this reason, it is heartening to see that under the campaign’s immediate, and moderate, aims is the recognition that GTAs’ problems stem from the fact that universities across the country are “operating more and more like businesses every year”, and that the pressures facing GTAs are common to all those employed (or outsourced) by universities, and indeed in any other workplace.

KCL “often puts profits before people”, and with the profiteering comes deepening exploitation, casualisation, and neglect of anything that can’t be used to line the pockets of management (with senior executive pay second only to real estate in terms of university expenditure). It is not only GTAs and cleaners, but increasingly professional service staff who “are on precarious contracts, or who are having to take on more work as colleagues leave and are not replaced.”

All of this directly impacts students, too. The activists and their fellow GTAs “feel a huge responsibility to students, and most GTAs report working way beyond their paid hours to make sure they do a ‘proper job’,” however, management’s negligence and “profit-mongering” makes this next to impossible.

At the same time as KCL is “recruiting more and more students”, it is spreading its employees’ ever thinner and eroding their working conditions. “With increasingly de-personalised learning conditions, students miss out on the ‘cutting edge’ research that King’s promises they will be taught about: people on temporary contracts often don’t have the time to do their research,” said one activist.

This damage to education is just one more way in which the organic crisis of capitalism manifests itself. This is why it is so important that all workers at universities link up their campaigns, and together with students fight for our common interests: against marketisation, for an education system that is free for students and gives workers “enough time, with big enough, well-supported teams, made up of people who aren’t stressed about workloads or finances, to do our jobs properly.”

Ultimately, the Fair Pay 4 GTAs emphasise that “the working conditions of teachers and professional services staff are [students’] learning conditions.” In light of this, it is essential that students show solidarity with our GTAs, strengthening their fighting resolve and putting pressure on KCL management.

KCL students can help by signing their KCLSU-affiliated campaign online, and everyone, from KCL or not, is welcome to drop a note of solidarity here.

Furthermore, it is important that KCL feels the heat, which you can ensure by emailing the principal’s office at principal@kcl.ac.uk or posting on Facebook and tweeting at KCL.

Finally, lecturers across the UK are currently balloting for strike action over pay, and we need to give them the confidence to go forward by showing them we have their backs. In this way, in the words of the GTA activists, we can “stand together to tell the college that universities should not be for-profit businesses.”

Anthony Oakland, KCL Marxists

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