Law school postgraduate anger at inconsistencies in PhD funding

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by Nicoletta Ascuito

by Charlotte Bransgrove

Durham University Law Department’s recent decision to offer two paid teaching assistant posts for full time PhD students beginning courses in 2014 has caused outcry among students.

Postgraduate researchers from the Law School have reacted angrily to the news, criticising both the generous salary and the fact that the positions were not open to current students.

In its last edition, Palatinate published an article highlighting pay discrepancies between postgraduates employed in different departments within the university.

It also revealed that a third of post graduate students employed across the country are paid less than the National Minimum Wage for their real working hours, according to a report undertaken by the National Union of Students.

Now it appears the university may be neglecting the needs of struggling PhD students in its funding process.

Postgraduates, unlike undergraduates, are not offered any government aided loans, which means many PhD students have difficulties financing both living costs and tuition fees, particularly in the current economic climate.

The University Law Department website advertises a number of funding opportunities for postgraduates, including studentships provided by the Law School and the Durham Doctoral Studentships which are available from The Faculty of Social Sciences & Health. It also points to external opportunities for funding such as The British Chevening Scholarships.

However, as many of these are not exclusively for Law students, competition is very high and funding can be exceedingly difficult to obtain.

Durham Law School currently has 73 postgraduate research students, whose tuition fees for 2012 – 2013 stood at £3,828 for home and EU students, and £12,600 for those from overseas.

On a website for prospective postgraduate students, the University states: “It is very important that you have sufficient funds in place to meet your tuition fees and living costs before you start your course.”

For subjects like Law, where funding is rare, students are often required to take up part time work in order to afford their studies.
The two Graduate Teaching Assistant posts advertised on the university website offered a salary of between £24,049 and £29,541 each, designed to alleviate financial pressures on Law students pursuing PhD studies.

When asked to explain the new posts, however, a University spokesperson said that “the advert summarising the role on the University’s recruitment website was incorrect.”

“Candidates who applied for this position will be informed that the salary is 50% of the grade 6 salary (i.e. approx £12,024-£14,770), 17.5 hrs/wk. Their PhD tuition fees are also covered at the home/EU rate.”

Yet the “incorrect” advert summarising the role has been criticised by students, who have highlighted that such generous posts will only aid a very few number of students in the Law School, rather than addressing the general issue of funding within the department.
As justification for the posts, Deryck Beyleveld, Head of Durham Law School, said: “Graduate Teaching Assistant posts provide important opportunities for us to attract new postgraduate students to Durham. They demand additional skills and responsibilities, hence their slightly higher level of remuneration.”

The University spokesperson explained these additional responsibilities: “GTAs will also contribute as appropriate to curriculum development, undergraduate and postgraduate research supervision, enhancement of the student experience, administration within the School (including as a member of School committees to an extent commensurate with the nature of the post), and by undertaking other responsibilities as required by the Head of School.”

“By contrast,” he added, “PhD students who are in receipt of Durham Law School PGR Scholarships (about a quarter of the total number of Law PhD students) receive £6,000 per annum and have their fees paid. For this, they usually undertake to do some teaching, although some can act as research assistants on a contract for services.

“The teaching is usually 40 one-hour tutorials per year (four different tutorials repeated ten times). They also usually undertake some marking.”

However, one research student, voicing concerns about the new posts to Palatinate, stated that they are “one of the lucky few” who receives £6,000 and pay for tuition fees “in exchange for working as a tutor in law.”

“It’s hard to see how full time PhD students in the posts could do more teaching than I already do, which is around 40 contact hours, 50 marking hours, and 18 office hours, ignoring all preparation.”

Moreover, students expressed their frustration at the exclusion of those currently involved with research in the Law Department from applying.

When asked why current students could not apply for the posts, the University spokesperson stated, “The posts in question are not scholarships, but fixed term staff appointments. University policy relating to GTAs requires that the funding for the posts is made available to help recruit additional post-graduate students to Durham for a full three years. This policy also applies to Durham Doctoral Fellowships.”

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