Hourly Lecturing in Higher Education: Know Your Contract, Don’t Get Screwed

Screw head coming out of a piece of wood.
Is this you?

This little article is a guide to what I’ve seen of these shitshow contracts, how they confuse you, how they bilk you into working unpaid hours, and how they’ll string you along with “maybe a perm job” like a toxic boyfriend who acts like Pete Davidson looks. (For the record, PD seems like a standup dude. But there’s a reason he’s known for his “Chad” sketches.) Oh, and I’ll be focusing on UK HE, since that’s where my experience lies. I have a feeling it’s very similar to the US.

Here, have some Chad.

There are an awful lot of reasons why HEIs can take advantage of you this way. You want a perm/tenure-track job, you know you need teaching experience. You probably need extra cash, because advanced studies are predicated on the notion that you are a young white man with rich parents, and so aren’t actually structured so you can both study and live. You might have finished your studies, and are trying to bridge your way into a lectureship. You might have settled with your family near a university, and the work you’re most qualified for is HE teaching, but unlike the expectation of a young, single white man with rich parents who can move at the drop of a hat for a fellowship or new job, you have geographical restrictions.

I’ve been there. I started my academic career as an hourly paid lecturer. I got screwed just like everyone else. Since then, I’ve had a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, permanent lectureship, and now a contracted post. I’ve been Deputy Head of School, Director of Graduate Studies, and Director of Teaching and Learning—which means I’ve hired graduate students and hourly lecturers, and scoured their contracts to make sure they’re not getting (overly) screwed.

Artwork robot with a screw sticking out of the top of its head.
Artwork robot with a screw sticking out of the top of its head.
This is what career academics look like. So screwed we’re lobotomised.

Note: if you’re an hourly paid lecturer in HE, you’re getting screwed. If you’re a salaried permanent academic, you’re also getting screwed. But here we’re focusing on the former…

The Hire

This is the first part of confusion. You generally get hired by the Head of School/Department. They’ll speak in terms of modules and contact hours. They’ll say you’ll get a contract from HR, and at that point it’s out of their hands. You get a contract from HR, and it’s written in Martian, and you sign it, because you’ve already been teaching for three weeks and what frakking choice do you have?

Here’s why it’s all such a clusterfuck: the HoS/D knows they need the teaching, usually six months in advance. They don’t control their budget. They tell the College/Faculty Manager, or Dean, or whoever can approve hiring, and that person says “okay, we have to get the teaching done, so we’ll have to find it in the budget, I’ll get back to you.” And there the post goes, into the black hole of management speak.

What it is is that until the incoming first years sign up for their modules the week before classes, the teaching hours are not set. It doesn’t matter that the HoS or permanent staff absolutely KNOW how many students sign up for what module each and every year. All that matters to the budget is the hard and fast numbers that don’t appear until the first week of the semester.

So the HoS/Dir. T&L will reach out to you months in advance, knowing they will need you. It will feel like they’re stringing you along and not doing jack to get you your confirmation and your contract. In some cases of incompetence, this is so. But usually, it’s because university structures are assholes in a patriarchal system that assumes all HE students are, again, young white males with rich parents who are just doing this whole thing on a lark. I guess.

Line drawing of a bolt with eyes and corkscrew arms and legs.
Line drawing of a bolt with eyes and corkscrew arms and legs.
This is how it feels to try to sort out teaching.

Anyway, it means the Managers have to wait till there are student numbers signed up for modules, to know exactly how many teaching hours are needed, to know that they definitely do not have enough people to teach, to approve your hire, and send off the paperwork to HR, who will take another two weeks to process it because there’s only three of them and 80% of those three only work Tuesdays and Thursdays every third month.

And that’s why you don’t get your contract until you’ve already been teaching for a month.

The Contract

No ECR I’ve ever known has been able to extract sense out of their contracts. This is like reading tests for voting rights: they’re deliberately designed to bamboozle you so that you can’t fight against them. Let me see if I can help you unpack them.

Only if you’re very lucky will the contract or the letter of appointment outline how much you are being paid per hour, and how many hours you are expected to work. Even then, they’re likely to include something like “you are expected to work a minimum of 100 hours; hours are to be agreed between you and your line manager.”

This looks straightforward. It isn’t. Because your line manager never sees this contract, has no idea what you are being paid, or how many hours you’re contracted for. They just know they hired you to teach the whole module. To them, it doesn’t matter whether you get it done in the contracted hours, double the contracted hours, or half of them.

Wait, scratch that. They care if you do it in half of them, because then they can dump 50 hours of marking on you. Never do it in less than your contracted hours. Ever.

White man’s hand holding five sharp screws, points out and splayed.
White man’s hand holding five sharp screws, points out and splayed.
Your line manager, waiting for you to sit down.

The other thing they put in there: that the “hourly” rate you’re getting isn’t really an hourly rate. It’s the rate per contact hour, and it’s fluffed out to account for ALL the other things they expect you to do associated with that module: prep, marking, exams, office hours, etc. You’re not getting £40/hr. You’re probably getting £5/hr. If you see this phrasing in your contract, ask how they calculate this; get the NUMBERS. Because it’s highway fucking robbery, and it’s how they’ll get you to do WAY more than what you should be doing for them, because hours don’t mean hours in these things.

More on the hours in a minute. Next we have to talk about the contract you get if you aren’t lucky, and don’t get to see an hourly paid wage. Instead, you get a fractional contract. Fractional as in a fraction of full-time salary, for a fraction of the year. They will actually put mathematical equations on these contracts. This is to make you feel inadequate, and to ensure you stop looking at it immediately. This is also why your algebra teacher told you this stuff would be important later. You didn’t believe them, but you totally should have.

So, the way these work: they hire you at a specific pay point on the yearly salary scale (you’ll see “Grade X, Point Y”). Then they calculate what fraction of full time work you are doing, based on full time being 35 hours per week. Then that is further fractioned off to match the number of weeks you’re teaching.

Which is all very confusing, because you were told you were being hired to teach a module. What the actual fuck.

Again, this is bamboozling. It’s to make it difficult for you to figure out how much you’re actually being paid for the work you do.

So. You can find your yearly FT salary on the UK scales. Different universities equate different Grades with different titles (Lecturer, Prof, etc.), so we’re going to focus on the Spine Point, which is universal across UK HE.

Here are some calculations to help you suss out this mess.

You’re hired for one module, which has one lecture, one seminar/lab, and one office hour per week. That’s three contact hours. The semester is twelve weeks long, with a reading week in which there are no classes, so you have eleven teaching weeks. Part-time lecturing is usually calculated as 1.25–1.5 times contact hours, which means that for every contact hour you have, they’re paying you for another 15–30 minutes to do teaching prep and marking. That’s it.

If your contract is fractional, it won’t tell you how many hours you’re actually supposed to be working. It will likely say something like “0.1 FTE”. That means you are getting 10% of what you would if you were full time; and that you should be working only 10% of the hours (35/week for full-time).

0.10 * 35hrs/wk = 3.5 hrs/week

Your monthly pay (because universities pay monthly—this is why they do the bass-ackwards thing of putting you on a fractional salary: everyone must fit within one pay model, no matter how crazy it makes everything) will be based on the yearly salary at your spine pay point, divided by 12 (number of months in a year), multiplied by your fraction. Let’s say you’re hired at point 26, which for 2020–21 was £30,046.

(£30,046 per year / 12 months per year) * 0.10 fractional contract = £250.38

If you want to calculate it weekly, it would be:

(£30,046 per year / 52 weeks per year) * 0.10 fractional contract = £57.78

So for an 11-week module (12 week semester with a reading week), you might be paid as follows, calculating from the monthly:

(11wks / 4.33wks per mo) * £250.38 = £635.60

Or from the weekly:

11 wks * £57.78 = £635.60

So, on a 0.10 FTE contract for one semester (11 weeks), you would be working 3.5 hours/week for a total of £635.60.

Remember this. You are contracted for 10% of full time. This does not mean you are contracted for “the absolute completion of the module, regardless of how many extra hours that may be”. Academia is a toxic environment predicated on the notion that we are all dilettantes, doing what we love and taking a salary for it just because. They expect us to teach until we drop, and then go home and do research on evenings and weekends (because it’s the research we usually get into academia for).

A LOT of people have bought into this (ahem, men). They work 80 hours a week because they want to (and because their wives take care of everything else), and then they expect everyone else to do the same, to be able to do the same. But we can’t. We have families and disabilities and caretaking duties and mental health needs and hobbies and lives and the golden era of television.

It is not your job to fill the gaps in the disaster zone that is the neoliberal university, which pays its president/chancellor in the hundreds of thousands for him (because it’s always a fucking him) to bully staff and live in a nice house until he finds something better. But you, who are actually doing the work, who actually care, they’re paying you £30/hour knowing that it will actually equate to £2/hour based on all the work they’ll tell you to do that you DON’T HAVE TO DO but will anyway because you want in, see?

I don’t know how to say this any other way: It’s NOT worth it. Academia is a cesspool. You think Hollywood is bad? They learned it from HEIs.

The Work

The thing is, again, this is all predicated on the old patriarchal ivory tower system (a.k.a., Oxbridge). The assumption is that hourly paid lecturers are supplemental, teaching a lab, a seminar, some tutorials here and there. The real teaching—the prep work, the QA, the validation, the online materials, the syllabus, the reading list, all the crap—is handled by the full-time salaried member of staff. You just have to show up, do what they tell you, and help with marking.

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And again, hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

This is total and complete bullshit. The reality of the work is this:

  1. You will not know if you actually have the gig until the semester starts.
  2. You will therefore have zero (paid) time to prep.
  3. You will not have a contract until week 3 or 4 of the semester, if you’re lucky.
  4. You will therefore not be paid until you’re almost finished teaching.
  5. You will have no materials given to you. You will get the validated description of the module, a blank VLE, no reading list, no assessments, no lectures, nada.
  6. You likely have less experience than the full-time lecturer might, and so your prep and marking will be overdone due to your anxiety, and slooooooooooooow. This is not your fault.
  7. You will bust your ASS for much longer than you are paid for, have to do paperwork you never expected and have no idea what it means, design and coordinate an entire module (for which you have no training and likely little guidance), all for less than you could earn in a couple nights’ bartending. Oh, but that line on your CV! /sarcasm

The Add-ons

These will be phrased to as to frame you as a “valued member of staff”. You’ll be “invited” to staff meetings, administrative sessions, and departmental “culture” activities. You might be asked to take on a few undergraduate dissertations. You’ll be asked to take on second marking for someone else’s module. You’ll be expected to do peer observation of someone else’s teaching. You will have to fill in the Quality Assurance paperwork and respond to module feedback and external examiner comments and grade distributions at the end of the semester. All these things, you will be told, are valuable experiences that will enhance your academic career.

They are not.

What they are are shitty administrative tasks that the system imposes on us because Oxbridge has twelve administrators per programme, so they do them, but of course no one else does, so lecturers have to do them instead. No one is going to hire you based on whether or not you did second marking or peer observation.

Don’t. Volunteer. Anything. You’re worth more than this bullshit.

The Empty Promises

Almost every hourly paid lecturer I know continues in the toxic relationship for years longer than they should have because of both spoken and unspoken promises: this will help your career. There’s a lectureship coming up here, and this will get you an inside track. Pay your dues, and eventually your academic post will appear.

I don’t know if I’ve already said this in this article, but this is some patriarchal, boomer bullshit. Sure, it may have worked that way in the heydays of the 50s & 60s, but the neoliberal model of the last 50 years has absolutely destroyed that. For every lectureship/TT-post, there are hundreds of applications, dozens of which could do the job with aplomb.

Naked white model human figure with santa hat on and pipe wrench over its shoulders.
Naked white model human figure with santa hat on and pipe wrench over its shoulders.
I know. It’s not a screw. Someone should tell Pixabay.

Further, if an institution can skip over you to hire someone with an Ivy/Oxbridge somewhere on their CV, or a couple more publications, and still keep you as back-up, they will. I have known multiple amazing academics, beloved by students and staff, interviewed over and over for lectureships that come up in their departments, and passed over every single time. This is an instance of that disgusting adage “why pay for the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?” The institution is benefiting from your amazingness for a FRACTION of the cost. Why would they change that situation?

Saying No

Here’s the thing. The institutions, and by extension your line manager, have no shame. No matter how well they know how badly they’re treating you, they will just keep doing it. They are your toxic boyfriend. It’s up to you to stop the cycle.

Be clear about what is in place for you going into the semester. Know how much material already exists for your module. Can they show you an existing VLE page, with reading lists, assessments, rubrics, and syllabi? If not, and it’s a module unfamiliar to you, you need more than 30 minutes of prep time per contact hour.

How many students are on the module, and what are the assessments? 30 minutes of marking time per contact hour is GREAT if there’s only one student on the module. It’s pretty shit if there are 60 (which equates to 30 hours of marking time just for ONE assessment). Calculate the hours, and negotiate.

Will you be required to attend staff meetings, do QA work, pastoral care, or any add-ons? Get paid for them, or don’t engage.

TRACK YOUR HOURS. Your prep time, your contact hours, how much time you spend responding to student emails, marking time, consultation time with co-workers, the lot. This is scary. It’s likely you’ll be doing twice, maybe three times what you’re contracted for. Do it anyway. It will give you FIRE to turn them down for their bullshit.

The other thing you can negotiate is a fractional, contracted lectureship instead of an hourly paid gig or “part-time instructor”. Even if it equates to the same thing, being able to put “Lectureship” on your CV is far better than hourly-paid instructor.

Finally, BE WILLING TO WALK AWAY. The world will not end if you do not take this gig. Trust me, the university will not allow the students to suffer negative consequences, if that’s your concern: they love their golden gooses far too much.

Say No. I MEAN IT.

What they think they have over you is that you want to have a full-time, permanent gig as an academic, and/or you need the money. If you say no to them, it will affect your chances if a lectureship comes up, or if you need to use them as a reference.

Here’s the thing. Anyone who would bully you into work like this is not someone you want to work for, nor are they someone you’ll feel comfortable asking for a reference.

Yes, I know you don’t have a lot of options. You’re tired of retail/waitressing/living with parents-family-roommates. You want to keep your hand in, stay part of the culture, and keep that library and facilities access.

IT’S. NOT. WORTH. IT.

Charcoal grey kitty glaring into camera
Charcoal grey kitty glaring into camera
This kitty wouldn’t let them get away with their bullshit. Be the kitty.

I have a friend who was the most beloved instructor in their department. They got their PhD in that department. They basically worked a full-time gig for a paltry fraction of what they would have earned on a permanent contract, and every year had the stress of not knowing what their job would look like, or if it would exist at all. They got 100% feedback on module evaluations. They basically held up an entire programme.

They interviewed for no less than four permanent lectureships in that department as they came up. They were never awarded. When the HEI finally screwed her over, the students actually started a campaign to keep her, and the press was bad. The HEI did not care. My friend exited academia, found a much better job that appreciates them for who they are and what they do, and are much happier.

Now I’ll tell you a secret: this isn’t just one friend. This is several of my close friends. Dozens of my acquaintances. Hundreds of people I’ve seen on Twitter.

It is very rare that a department will make use of a part-time instructor, and then that PTI is awarded a permanent post in that department. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it happen. So don’t count on it.

You wouldn’t let Tesco treat you this way. Don’t let a university, no matter what shenanigans they try to pull (and they WILL pull them, because they’ve gotten away with them for decades).

Find a mentor, even if it’s on Twitter or Facebook. Your PhD supervisor, someone in another department. Talk to them. You’re doubly screwed because you don’t have a union to talk to. So use the community. Use it to help you say no. You don’t deserve to be treated the way HEI will treat you.

Writer/researcher in digital writing, interactive narrative, & digital publishing. Hoping for the United Federation of Planets; worried we’re doomed to the 100.