The University of Waterloo has a Teaching Assistantship problem: TAs and their labour are not taken seriously. Currently, UW is the only university in Ontario without a union for its graduate student workers.
TAs fill a unique professional position. They are both students and educators. No other academic role falls victim to such unclear power dynamics and work expectations as much as graduate student workers. The problem with this duality can be summarised as follows: if TAs are just students, then TA work should prepare a graduate student for a career in academia. Conversely, if TAs are just workers, then they should have complete access to the benefits of any reasonable job: training, contracts, and transferable skills. Graduate student workers sit at the intersection of these two roles and suffer the worst of both worlds.
There are many issues. First, a lack of training and support undermines how effective TAs are as markers and educators and thus the legitimacy of a university’s accreditation. Second, TA work is often integral to graduate student funding, rather than supplemental, meaning students can be vulnerable to sudden changes in pay, hiring, or responsibilities. Finally, TA work is not fully respected as legitimate work.
We spoke with an international student and PhD Candidate from the faculty of health, who articulated some of these problems:
“To be a Teaching Assistant at UW is often touted as a learning and skill-building experience that will benefit students when they enter a career in [either] academia or industry. Unfortunately, this often does not come to fruition for graduate students. As a TA, we are expected to manage, facilitate, and evaluate undergraduate students as they progress through their degrees. However, the skills needed to do this successfully are not provided to graduate students by UW.”
TA work has provided little development of their managerial, leadership or instructional skills. Instead, this student relies on skills developed from years of industry experience.
UW inadequately supports TA skill-building. Training is often unpaid, hasty, and poorly scoped. It can range in quality across campus, because individual faculties and departments are made responsible for training. TA work promises to prepare graduate students for the competitive academic industry, requiring skills in teaching, communication, student mentorship, and course development. However, little ensures that TAs receive proper training and experience. Instead, UW treats TA labour as a way to outsource undergraduate education to “experts-in-training” at a much lower pay grade.
Mandatory TA training at UW only consists of basic safety and accessibility training, workplace violence, and mental health awareness. A student explained to us that the mandatory TA training was unpaid and failed to teach them anything they hadn’t already learned outside of the university, except how to handle an undergraduate mental health crisis. This highlights two issues. Graduate student workers are left under-prepared for the TA role, and we are also forced into taking a frontline role in undergraduate student mental health. TAs are gravely unqualified to fill this role. The university has a responsibility to provide adequate mental health resources for students, rather than once again offloading these responsibilities onto their TAs.
While many skill-building workshops are offered by UW, they are poorly advertised and hosted on a variety of decentralised platforms. For the majority of graduate students, the time to complete these workshops is unpaid. Thus, graduate students are not incentivised to pursue these professional development opportunities, nor are they widely recognised outside of the university itself. Furthermore, the responsibility and time to identify and pursue these opportunities is placed solely on graduate students, as many supervisors do not know they exist – or would prefer their students spend their time doing research.
Work contracts protect the rights of workers and detail their responsibilities. TAs receive work contracts on an inconsistent basis across campus. Often, the closest thing to a contract is the graduate student admission letter. This letter usually includes some funding information, but does not include the cost of tuition or other administrative fees.
Additionally, the lack of a contract means there is no guarantee what subject – or responsibilities – may be assigned to a graduate student. Graduate students are often expected to teach undergraduates material they may not even know themselves. This creates an additional unpaid burden to quickly enhance their own understanding of the material to assist the undergrads paying to take the course. Furthermore, this lack of consistency creates a serious disadvantage when it comes time to seek employment, since most TAs will not have a specific area of teaching expertise. Thus, there remains a significant mismatch between work assignment expectations and the career objectives of the graduate student worker.
The lack of contracts also means TAs do not have protected overtime pay. If a course requires more marking than is budgeted, TAs are not paid for this extra time. The only real recourse is refusing to work past your allotted hours, which directly hurts undergrads. This can also cause tenuous relationships within the department and impact a student’s future TA assignments or research milestones.
UW is using graduate students as human lubricant between the institutional cogs of undergrad needs and an exploitative administration. Some departments have tried to address this with the TA Hours Allocation Form, intended to facilitate an “open dialogue” about expectations for the term. However, this form is not a required step in the TA assignment process and is not considered a formal contract between the course instructor and the worker.
Most graduate students begin their studies to either work in academia or advance their career in industry. Working as a TA provides diminishing benefits to both these ends.
For those who want to work in academia, there simply are not enough positions. The number of people completing PhDs is increasing, while available professorships remain stagnant. A recent report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) estimates that there is one assistant professor position for every five PhD graduates in Canada.
Furthermore, job security is atrocious for those who pursue non-tenure track positions. According to a CBC article from 2021, the number of courses taught by part-time faculty in Ontario has doubled since 2000 and now accounts for about half of the province’s university teaching workforce. Estimates in the United States by the American Association of University Professors from 2018 find that nearly three quarters of instructors hold non-tenure track positions. Working as a TA also does little to improve a student’s application for positions in academia, since research is disproportionately valued by hiring committees. UW does nothing to educate its incoming students on these facts, nor does it adapt its training and TA experience accordingly.
Students who have no desire to be academics are also poorly served by working as a TA. The economic return for a PhD has decreased. The CCA report found that post-PhD earnings fell across the board over the past 16 years. The report also found that non-academic sectors are not significantly increasing their uptake of PhD graduates. In fact, the per capita number of researchers employed in Canada has been shrinking since 2010. Rather than being sold on the benefits that TA experience provides for future job prospects, it is important that TA work be treated as legitimate in the immediate term — with equitable compensation.
So, now what?
TAs deserve to have their labour respected, to have their time and training well compensated and to be prepared with practical experience for the job market—academic or otherwise. Without such support, the undergraduate students and course instructors that rely on TA work will also suffer.
Unionisation is a tried-and-true way to legitimise TAs as workers. As one of our fellow TAs put it, “[I wish they would] stop saying I’m ‘only’ a student who TAs. I’m an employee, and I deserve protection and respect. I deserve a union.”
UW is the last university in Ontario without a TA or RA union. Graduate students saw no change to their financial situation in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic despite UW walking away with a $117 million in surplus revenue. A union would give graduate students a vehicle to fight for better working conditions, with legally enforceable mechanisms to support and enhance the TA experience to best suit graduate students.
If you’re interested in working to achieve a union for TAs at UW, check out the unionisation efforts of OrganizeUW at organizeuw.org.