Say that earning your credits is a piece of cake and you come across a vacancy to work as a Teaching Assistant (TA) at your programme. As a TA, you help professors by guiding first-year students during tutorials and review homework and exams. An eight-hour contract is ideal to combine with your studies.
That is also what Timo van Essen thought. He is a student assistant at the astronomy programme, but thinks that behind the ‘honourable side job’ (only students with high grades qualify) there is a lot of chaos and arbitrariness surrounding contracts.
According to Van Essen, the chaos was there from the very beginning. ‘You’re assigned to courses based on which course you got the highest grade for’, he says. ‘You’re thrown in at the deep end. I was only given a short training on how to address a student, but nothing course-specific. You’re expected to dredge it all up again yourself. The lecturer is often not present at the tutorials and of course, you don’t want to be left standing there like an idiot, unable to answer the simplest questions.’
‘It's more of a didactic course on how to intrinsically motivate a student, for example’, says astronomy student Stijn Vleugels, who has been a student assistant for more than three years and is on the Programme Committee. ‘I only learnt important things during the round of questions. That was when senior students told about what most students struggled with during the course and how to prepare.’
But a bigger problem is payment and lack of transparency regarding time registration, say student assistants. ‘Preparation for tutorials is covered by the salary’, Vleugels explains. ‘You work eight hours a week. Two hours are spent teaching during the tutorial. The other six hours are spent on preparation and reviewing students’ work. If you take that seriously, you easily make those eight hours.’
Van Essen also made his eight hours a week, yet to his surprise, he was offered a shorter contract. ‘When I started, I thought I would get paid for the entire duration of the course. I got an e-mail from JobMotion, the university’s employment agency, which stated that the contract ran until the last lecture. But the course’s final deadline was two weeks after that’, says Van Essen. ‘Because of that, I didn’t even get paid for my work in those weeks before the final deadline, let alone for the grading work after that.’
He decided to take it up with the lecturer. ‘We then agreed that we’d be paid an extra two weeks’, says Van Essen. However, this promise was broken: ‘A week before the contract expired, we were told that the contract would only be extended by one week. According to the lecturer, this was “fairer”. He said that some weeks had been quieter than others and he didn’t want to overcompensate us. But that’s nonsense because I’d put in more than enough hours.’
Vleugels never encountered any such problems at Astronomy. ‘I was always paid until a week after the resit. But every programme has different regulations. That’s why there may be differences between how things work at Physics and Astronomy.’
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Something the astronomy Programme Committee gets a lot of complaints about is JobMotion, the university’s in-house employment agency that pays the student assistants. ‘It could take up to two to three months before you’d receive your contract’, says Vleugels. ‘So you wouldn’t get paid during those months either. As a result, some students ended up in financial trouble. It was difficult to raise the problem with JobMotion, because they’re often hard to reach. The programme contacted the director of JobMotion months ago, but we have yet to see any improvement.’
There are also numerous complaints about JobMotion at other faculties. The issue that student assistants and invigilators are paid too late was also discussed by the participation body at the Law School. ‘There have already been several complaints from different faculties’, said Mirjam Sombroek-van Doorm of the (now resigned) Law Faculty Board. ‘JobMotion is working on it but not always at a desirable pace. We will keep pushing.’
In a phone call with Mare, JobMotion director Karoline van Haaften denied that there are any problems. ‘We’re completely up to speed. Ultimately, it’s all up to our people.’ When asked why it takes as long as two months for some students to get a contract, she replies that she cannot comment on specific cases. ‘For individual problems, they can contact JobMotion.’
Another student assistant (who wishes to remain anonymous) says he was also paid short, but that the workload can differ greatly per course. ‘Some lecturers are paranoid and want to maintain complete control. For example, they review all the homework themselves which means you have less work to do every week.’
He says his contract only ran until the final exam. ‘I had to grade both the exam and the resit unpaid; the most tedious part of the job. It takes at least three full days. Fellow TAs (teaching assistants, Ed.) told me it was the same last year.’
The imbalance of power complicates things further, he says. ‘The problem is that you don’t want to ruin the relationship with the lecturer. If you complain, that might negatively affect future cooperation, because they’re also your own lecturers.’
Van Essen: ‘The awkward thing is that the course's lecturer is also my thesis supervisor. So the question is whether that small sum of 150 euros is worth getting into all the hassle. The other three student assistants for this course didn’t think that was a good idea. They were afraid it would backfire, but the truth is that we’re entitled to our money.’
Van Essen pointed out to his lecturer that this could also have adverse consequences for the university. ‘It’s poorly regulated. Legally speaking, if the final date of the contract has passed, I can stop working. The course lecturer says it’s nice that there is mutual trust between the university and the TAs, but in the meantime, I have to keep working without pay.’
In order to get paid for his last week, he eventually had to send the lecturer an excel file with the hours worked. ‘He took that to the programme director and now I just have to wait and see whether I’ll get it. It’s frustrating that they’re being so fussy over such a small amount.’
Vleugels says that there are no power imbalances at Astronomy, but understands that it may feel that way to other students. ‘In principle, our lecturer is not in charge of the contract. The programme director defines the duration of the contract and the lecturers just specify how many TAs they need.’
Associate Professor in astronomy Sjoert van Velzen explains over the phone that it is primarily the Education Office that defines the contract. ‘We try to define all the expected duties beforehand. The number of students who enrol for the course and the amount of help they need also varies from year to year. There are, of course, consultation meetings between the lecturers and the office, but there are no infinite funds. The situation is never the same.’
Van Velzen does not entirely agree that the student assistants are underpaid. ‘I understand that it may feel frustrating to some students. But saying that you work without pay is an exaggeration in my opinion. The university is not trying to take advantage of students. Sometimes there are quiet weeks in which TAs don’t have to check any homework.’
On the subject of possible power imbalances, he says: ‘You're very likely to run into each other. It’s a small programme so problems like this will always come up. But if you have a problem, you can also turn to the Education Office.’
‘Ultimately, we just have to talk to each other to come to a solution together’, Van Velzen concludes. ‘Maybe we should to be more generous in our scheduling next year.’
The head of education for astronomy did not respond to questions from Mare.