Doctoral Tutors during and after the Covid-19 pandemic: present and future of doctoral teaching at Sussex

Sussex Precarious Academics are a group of precariously employed workers across several schools at the University of Sussex. They are made up of and represent staff in different roles, including Doctoral Tutors, School Tutors, fixed-term lecturers and researchers, and temporary module convenors.

Here, they detail the impact of the Financial Review Guidelines and the Covid-19 pandemic on Doctoral Tutors.

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The Covid-19 pandemic outbreak has brought remarkable disruption to the lives of many doctoral researchers – and to (almost) everyone else around the world – in many different ways. Most of us had to adjust to the major changes that the pandemic has brought with it in both our academic and private lives, and to cope with an unsettling context and uncertain future.

One of the most uncertain issues Universities are facing is the future of teaching and of doctoral tutors, in a context where more than half of the UK teaching staff is employed under insecure contract forms. Many doctoral researchers complement or entirely base their income on temporary teaching contracts, which normally last only the duration of the teaching term. Despite this, with its latest Financial Review Guidelines the University of Sussex has informed doctoral tutors that their contracts will be reviewed – and there are good hints that “reviewed” won’t mean “upgraded”.

Many doctoral researchers complement or entirely base their income on temporary teaching contracts

The truth is that nobody knows whether there will be teaching opportunities for doctoral tutors next year. This will depend not only on the number of students that will enroll, but also on the strategic decisions that the University will take with regard to its financial commitments, as the current loans contracted by the University (for around £180 million) bind them to produce a surplus every year. Given the limits and constraints, University management will have to make cuts – and there is no sign that they will be done on the highly paid university employees (the 64 highest paid University of Sussex staff earn a total of £7.742 million per year according to the latest financial statement, page 39). 

The 64 highest paid University of Sussex staff earn a total of £7.742 million per year

What will change for us?

The doctoral researchers working as tutors have already experienced a number of changes resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak; many have been deeply involved in the process of transition towards emergency remote teaching, both rearranging their teaching material and helping the students during the transition, and unavoidably spending more time than they have been paid for.

Additionally, with the change in the timetable and postponement of the assessments resulting from the decision to close the University campus, many of doctoral tutors are or will be marking assessments while their contracts have already ended. While some Schools have extended tutor contracts with extra pay, most of the Schools have not – which is particularly frustrating.  

Overall, the Financial Review Guidelines and the current financial situation of the University outline a gloomy scenario for those whose funding depends on temporary teaching contracts, as they have made clear that there may not be jobs for us. The University has so far avoided addressing the issue of temporary contracts, although there will be an opportunity to raise these concerns at the next PGR forum, that will be hosted on 11 June 2020 at 1pm.

It is important that in this crucial phase of transition between pre- and post-pandemic universities, the issue of casual labour and doctoral researchers’ funding are highly visible to University management and to the public. If you are looking for support, or if you would like join a group of early stage precarious academics, the Sussex Precarious Academics are actively engaging all our community, asking the University to guarantee precarious jobs and permanent staff to support us by not taking up the work done by precarious workers if they are laid off. Have a look at our website if you would like to sign the petition, or to get in touch please send an email to sussexprecariat@gmail.com.

— Sussex Precarious Academics

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