Student Life

“TA working conditions are student learning conditions” – Part One

By The Graduate Press Fall 2022 Editorial Board

Since 2020, Teaching Assistants (TAs) have been fighting for fairer wages, better working conditions, and improved financial and employment security at The Geneva Graduate Institute (IHEID). TAs are essential to student learning and the broader functioning of the Institute. In addition to supporting professors, TAs are often the only point of contact and support for students throughout their studies. Despite their essentialness, IHEID TAs are amongst the lowest paid across Switzerland – receiving an income that is below the monthly minimum wage in Geneva1

This article will be the first in a series of pieces investigating the precarious TA contracts offered by the Institute, highlighting the path of current negotiations between TA representatives and the Direction (IHEID Administration) since May 20222, as well as the multifaceted ways in which these contracts impact the personal, professional, and academic lives of both PhD and Master’s students. 

Last spring, IHEID TAs protested the changes to their pay and working conditions unilaterally enacted by the Direction. These protests were in response to the Direction’s decision to reduce TA contracts from a 100% to a 70% activity rate. The “activity rate” refers to the contract percentage of the number of working hours dedicated to TA versus PhD-specific tasks and duties. This reduction in activity rate, according to the TAs, failed to represent their true workloads. 

Only five to seven TA packages are allocated to each department, meaning that there are between 50 and 70 total available TA positions each academic year. The number of IHEID TAs has remained relatively stable over the years, averaging between 60 and 65 TAs per semester. 

On the other hand, the number of admitted students has risen dramatically in the past five years, increasing 126%. In 2016, 353 students were admitted into the Institute and they received support from 60 TAs. In 2021, the number of admitted students jumped to 799; these students received support from just 63 TAs. 

The disproportionate increase in the number of admitted students compared to the number of TAs has resulted in an obvious decrease in TA support available to students and increase in TAs’ workload, significantly impacting their ability to adequately support students and professors. There are also disparities in the workloads between TAs. For example, TAs advocated for the elimination of “flying TA” positions; these are TAs who are not assigned to classes and are responsible for tasks on an ad hoc basis. While this position has technically been eliminated by the Institute, many TAs are still working in these roles without the support and remuneration to balance this workload. 

The negotiation process

Since November 2021, the activity rate in TA contracts has been unilaterally reduced from 100% to 70% and now 45%. Unlike other PhD programs in Switzerland, PhD students at IHEID are not viewed by the Direction as being paid workers.

The Assistants’ Association (ADA) Board has been working through negotiations with the Direction to settle on a new TA contract, meeting regularly throughout 2021 and the beginning of 2022. After a TA General Assembly was hosted on 3 June 2022, a majority of TAs voted for the 100% activity rate contract – which they felt most accurately reflected the true workload for PhD and TA tasks – and communicated their choice with the Direction. They were met with ten days of no communication regarding new TA hires or contract renewals, which are essential for students to renew their student visas and stay in Switzerland for their studies. 

This decision to reduce TA contracts to a 45% activity rate came during a meeting between the Direction and TA representatives on June 15th. The day before this meeting was held, the Direction informed the TA representatives that they would be accompanied by a labor lawyer. During this meeting, the Direction announced the new 45% activity rate contract, unilaterally implemented from September 2022, on the grounds that TAs needed a contract that reflected the reality of their work (i.e. only assistant tasks), and their previous proposals and negotiations were no longer applicable.

During the summer break, TA representatives worked to secure new negotiation meetings with the Direction. On 29 September 2022, a negotiation meeting was finally scheduled for 8 November. On November 8th, the Direction cancelled the meeting, a mere 47 minutes before it was set to begin. The meeting has yet to be rescheduled. 

The contracts – let’s get specific 

So what does a 45% contract look like? We are going to break it down. 

The IHEID PhD programs require a minimum four-year commitment3. The first two years are typically dedicated to coursework and fieldwork, if applicable. While serving in their roles as TAs, they earn a net wage of CHF 19,728.48/year or CHF1,644.04/month. According to the Direction, this is reflective of TA tasks for 15 hours/week over the course of 42 weeks plus 23 hours of training. This wage is also reflective of time dedicated to PhD research for 3 hours/week over 42 weeks plus 18 hours/week in the remaining 4 and a half weeks (excluding four weeks/year of vacation). 

In reality, this breakdown of time dedicated to TA versus PhD tasks is not an accurate reflection of the true workloads PhD students are forced to balance. In addition, TAs receive a scholarship of CHF18,500/year, and they pay CHF2,500CHF/year of tuition fees. Tuition fees for TAs will be lowered to CHF2,000/year in 2023-2024 and to CHF1,000/year in 2024-2025.

After tuition fees, TAs are left with a net remuneration (including the scholarship) of CHF 35,728.48/year or CHF 2,977.37/month. In comparison, PhD students at the University of Geneva receive 70% activity rate contracts with a gross remuneration package of CHF 66,067/year and an annual tuition payment of CHF 130/year. Unlike at IHEID, TA contracts at the University of Geneva also include yearly increases. 

Under the new PhD package, students will not begin their roles as TAs until the third and fourth years of their PhD program; however, while unlikely, students under the current package can pursue TA positions as early as their first year.

Overall, the contracts offered to TAs are not representative of their actual workload nor do they accommodate the cost of living in Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world, especially when compared to other Swiss universities. 

What now? 

Through anonymous interviews conducted with TAs across different departments at the Institute, they have expressed that the Direction views the TA contract negotiations and advocacy efforts as an act of confrontation.  

According to one TA, the unilateral actions and overall tone used by the Direction in these negotiations is perceived as a type of “symbolic violence” exercised to reinforce the power dynamics of the Institute administration over TAs, and the Institute community at-large. To this point, these interviews were conducted anonymously due to TAs’ fear of retaliation from the Direction.

Another TA stated that the Direction and the broader Institute administration “[have done a] really good job of fragmenting the student community” by questioning the legitimacy of not just the ADA, but also GISA, who is meant to advocate on behalf of students with the Institute. 

The Graduate Press asked each TA what they believe IHEID Master’s students can do to better support and advocate for TAs’ working conditions and contract negotiations. 

“We cannot do and be what the students deserve with our current salary and contractual conditions,” said one TA in the IRPS Department. “TA working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Master’s students need to show up and advocate for their TAs. One way to do this is to write to the Direction, participate in General Assemblies, and utilize GISA as an advocacy tool. We also encourage students to share our articles widely. 

TAs are, more often than not, the first point of contact for students in their coursework and are a source of academic and personal support. If TAs are not supported and valued as important members of the Institute community, both students and professors will lose out on a productive, collaborative, and enriching learning environment. 

Please find below information packages prepared by the TA representatives outlining this issue in more detail.

1As of 2022, the gross minimum wage in Geneva is 48,401.60CHF/year or 4,033.47CHF/month

2The TA representatives are those chosen from the Assistants’ Association (ADA) and the Syndicat Interprofessionnel des Travailleuses et Travailleurs (SIT), trade union the IHEID TAs decided to partner with to increase their collective bargaining power in the negotiation process with the Direction.

3The majority of PhD students receive 5th year extensions for their programs. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, extensions have been made for 6th or even 7th years.  

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