By The TGP Fall 2022 Editorial Board
Teaching Assistants (TAs) at the Graduate Institute suffer not just from poor pay and conditions that extract their labour at a below-market rate, but from a negative working environment that leads to depression and burnout for some TAs. We spoke to one current PhD student who, when asked about their experience, said, “I wouldn’t recommend the PhD programme.”
TAs are vital to the running of the Institute, made the most evident during the Covid-19 pandemic as they were placed on the academic front lines of the Institute. TAs were essentially forced to work overtime for no additional compensation. When we asked TAs about their experiences, they mentioned the extra-long hours that included arduous tasks such as transcribing lectures and seminars for students with hearing impairments. This task could have been avoided, or at least reduced, if the Direction had chosen to invest in the transcribing software that is an optional part of the WebEx package. TAs will still do these tasks because they are passionate about teaching and truly care about their students; however, passion alone does not pay for TAs’ health insurance. Passion alone does not ensure that they can afford food. Passion alone does not protect their mental health. And yet the Direction has refused to acknowledge, let alone reward, these passion-driven efforts.
Since the lifting of lockdown restrictions in Switzerland, the Direction has failed to “honour the lived experience” of TAs by not improving pay and working conditions. This is all part of a reality that is hard to swallow for those who gave so much for the Institute and were frequently exposed to Covid-19 as a result. To illustrate, one TA went to the Institute’s administration seeking help, as they felt their mental health was deteriorating as they began to experience symptoms of burnout and depression during months of Covid-19 lockdowns and working overtime. They were told by the Direction they were “on holiday” and would not be able to help.
Being a TA is meant to provide invaluable experience to PhD students as they embark on the beginning of their professional academic journey. It is not meant to be a bizarre trial by fire. Instead, rather than learning how to create lesson plans, grade assignments, and effectively teach students, TAs end up learning little more than how to use WebEx and Moodle with little offered in return other than burnout and depression.
The poor pay and conditions that TAs are subjected to have contributed to creating a negative and hostile working environment where TAs are pressed into going above and beyond the demands of their contracts, or potentially facing academic retribution for being unable to meet professors’ expectations. This is especially true for TAs who have children. The same TA who told us they would not recommend the PhD programme talked about a code of silence developing between TAs with children and the Direction. They told us they fear facing academic retribution due to their sometimes-unpredictable schedules – an experience all parents of young children will go through – and so would not discuss their children with professors. A situation that is not helped by the part-time contracts for TAs that do not allow access to state-subsidised childcare, which requires both parents to be employed full-time, i.e., having contracts at 100%.
The Direction has done such a good job of fracturing the student community (and the Institute community at large) to the point that many professors and students are simply just unaware of the full extent to which TAs are taken advantage of. Now is the time for this to change because if pay, conditions, and the working environment for TAs do not improve, then the Institute will consequently “lose talented people” to rival universities. Many prospective PhD students will, and already have in some cases, be priced out of living in Geneva while others will be turned off by the “negative stain on [the] Institutes image” when it comes to employing and supporting their PhD students.
TAs are vital to the experience of many students who would not be able to make it through their classes without the support that TAs offer. Change needs to be instituted now to ensure that, going forward, TAs are fairly compensated and no longer must work to their breaking point. The open attempts of “Mcdonalidisation” by the Direction have failed and are quite simply an unsustainable model for TAs and the Institute. If things do not change, then it will not just be TAs who suffer at the hands of the Direction, but there will be a huge impact on the experience of MA students.