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How can we best use Graduate Teaching Assistants during the Covid-19 pandemic?

  • 15 June 2020
  • By Bethan Cornell

This blog was written by current HEPI intern and KCL Physics PhD student Bethan Cornell. Bethan has written on the blog before on a range of postgraduate topics covering accommodation and climate change.

In normal circumstances, universities rely on the help of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) for the smooth running of many of their courses. GTAs are usually PhD students, who are paid to help out with the delivery of undergraduate programmes. Their responsibilities vary but generally encompass marking of coursework, delivering small tutorials or seminars, assisting as demonstrators in labs and providing support to students in problem-based classes. GTAs will rarely, if ever, be in full charge of a module, but they often provide invaluable support for those who are, and their duties can sometimes significantly overlap with those of lecturers. Consequently, many institutions invest heavily in the training of their GTAs, including helping them work towards professional teaching qualifications.

Indeed, the relationship between GTAs and institutions is a symbiotic one: GTAs provide invaluable support towards the delivery of undergraduate modules and are, in turn, rewarded with extra pay (on top of any Research Council funding they may have as part of their PhD) and professional development opportunities, both useful for progressing in the sector towards a lectureship. The extra pay received by GTAs is particularly valuable to PhD students who receive little or no funding for extra financial demands away from their studies, such as childcare responsibilities. Many universities offer up to seven hours teaching-based work per week for GTAs during term time – a generous boost to many PhD students’ incomes.

The current, Coronavirus pandemic has changed the landscape of higher education – including the use of GTAs. Face-to-face teaching has stopped and the opportunities for small-group learning and assistants in large lecture classes are reduced. However, the sector is yet to address the impact that Covid-19 will have on both GTAs themselves and the students they normally support. GTAs represent a big resource. There are 101,885 PhD students in the UK and although not all will be available or willing to teach, a large proportion will. Universities are having to adapt rapidly to online teaching and with so many course adjustments to make, GTAs could play a vital role in making this adaptation a smooth and successful one.

Nevertheless, since GTAs assist, rather than lead modules, in a time of tightened university spending, they are likely to be the first teaching staff to feel the pinch. As it stands, many institutions have told GTAs that they do not expect them to be able to carry out their normal teaching duties, but even those on zero-hours contracts will continue to be paid this year (Exeter, Swansea, Kent and Manchester are all examples). However, if social distancing progresses into next academic year, we may see far fewer new PhD students given the chance to apply to be a GTA. Some existing GTAs who would have expected to teach may also find they are no longer required as face-to-face learning is cut back. Cutting GTAs will naturally save institutions money. However, is it that straightforward?

Several universities have outlined their plans to deliver lectures online for the whole of next academic year (for example, Cambridge and Manchester). These big plans are certainly not business as usual – so we should not expect institutions to be teaching as usual either. Taking lectures online does not have to mean traditional delivery with one speaker to a large (albeit electronic) room. Many platforms for online lecturing, for example Zoom, have the capacity for online ‘breakout’ rooms, where small groups can discuss content before returning to the lecture as a whole. Used effectively, with GTAs supervising the discussion in each breakout room, these could strengthen students’ experience of being a cohort and help them to engage with both the course content and their peers, something that will be more challenging at home than it may have been on campus.

Institutions may prefer a less rigid approach to live participation, allowing students in different time zones the same access to material. This does not mean that ambitions should be limited, however, as GTAs could be used to provide small-group learning sessions at different times, complementing the lecture experience and providing flexibility for all.

In fact, while the transition to online leaning is a challenge, it is also, in that old cliché, an opportunity too. It is time to redesign courses for the new generation of tech-savvy students. Creating new material fit for a digital age is going to take time and resources. With staff already under immense amounts of pressure, why not look to GTAs to help?

One of the main sources underpinning financial pressures in the sector during this pandemic is the loss of international tuition fees, which cross-subsidise other university activity. What better way to attract international students back than by becoming the most innovative, tech-enabled higher education sector in the world? Not only would this assist teaching and learning during Covid-19, but it would leave a legacy of strong international recruitment, underpinned by the hard work of GTAs. It would also massively outweigh any financial costs of keeping GTAs employed. For example, a GTA earning £15 an hour for 7 hours a week during term-time may cost a university around £3,800 a year based on 36 weeks of teaching. International fees regularly exceed £10,000 per student.

We do not just have to think big, however, to realise the benefits of turning to GTAs for help – significant impacts can be seen closer to home. For example, the difficulties faced by disadvantaged students during the pandemic such as care leavers and estranged students is well known. These students will continue to find access to higher education difficult if social distancing remains in place next academic year. To better support them into the sector, institutions could engage GTAs as mentors for disadvantaged students, providing them with the extra support and contact they may need to make their transition to higher education a successful one.

GTAs are an important resource for institutions to consider if they want to make the best out of the transition to online learning. If the contribution of, and skills gained by, GTAs are properly valued and invested in during this period of change, then institutions may not only see benefits for undergraduates. They may be able to forge stronger links with their PhD communities, which would be a positive experience for not only education culture but research culture too.

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