The Truth About Teaching Studentships- A Justice4Sanaz Perspective

The Justice4Sanaz campaign is heartened to see that casualised academic workers are fighting back against the onslaught of the neoliberal university system. A new campaign, Fighting Against Casualisation in Education(FACE), was recently launched this past February to advocate for casualised workers within higher education, many of whom are working below the living wage, living in poverty, under precarious contracts and employment prospects but yet “expected to perform a myriad of tasks outside of our contractual obligations, and many are afraid to complain.”

Recently, an article published on the FACE blog discussed the exploitative nature of teaching studentships at a number of universities. A former UCL PhD candidate’s experience was cited via FACE indicating how she wasn’t financially compensated for her teaching, despite being on a teaching scholarship. She states,

“I wasn’t given a contract until well into my first year. One year they [i.e. management] doubled my teaching a week before September term started.”

Another academic at a London based university goes on to comment to FACE, “a recent graduate of mine wanted to take up such a studentship, even sacrificing the right supervisor for the opportunity to be funded. It devalues the research process and the opportunity for students to pursue research they want to do, and many applicants are absolutely clueless about the impact on their PhD and the exploitation involved in these opportunities.”

When Sanaz started her PhD at the School of Media and Communication (Previously the Institute of Communications Studies), University of Leeds in October 2009,  she was granted less than two weeks before the start of term a full scholarship that came with teaching duties. As Sanaz indicated in a timeline of events she meticulously complied and would later submit to both her academic appeal case against the University of Leeds and to the Office of Independent Adjudicators for Higher Education (OIAHE), on the 2nd June 2009, she was offered the ICS Research Scholarship (fees only) by her former PhD supervisor, Dr. Helen Kennedy, who was then the Acting Postgraduate Research Tutor.

Less than week before enrollment for the 2009-2010 academic year, on the 23rd September 2009 Sanaz was informed by Dr. Kennedy that a student declined last minute the full-fees + maintenance ICS Research Scholarship (only two are given each year) and therefore the department had decided to give the scholarship to her. On the same day, Sanaz met with Dr. Bethany Klein, who is now the current head of the School of Media and Communication, to discuss her duties as the new teaching assistant (TA) under Dr. Klein for seminars related to her course, Communication Arts COMM20120. Interestingly, neither did Dr. Kennedy nor Dr. Klein inform Sanaz that she should attend training as required of all first year PhD students on teaching studentships.

For a year and a half into her PhD, Sanaz maintained a heavy load of seminar teaching duties that went beyond the 250 hours of maximum employment allowed outside her PhD students. Before Sanaz submitted her transfer viva, she was forced last minute due to a staff member going on maternity leave to mark final exams for the course, Introduction to Communication Theory. Sanaz made it known to both her former supervisor, Dr. Kennedy and to the then acting head of the School of Media and Communication, Dr. Sobol that had no prior experience at final marking exams and felt that someone more senior in position should be marking the exams. Dr. Sobol sent Sanaz a strongly worded e-mail forcing her to mark the exams despite her reservations and lack of experience. When Sanaz approached Dr. Kennedy for advice on how to handle the matter, Dr. Kennedy  was very dismissive about Sanaz’s reservations and felt that she should complete the marking despite not having any experience or training.

At the beginning of January 2011 she was informed by her supervisory team that her teaching duties would end with no reason given. We now know through an Freedom of Information (FOI) request done last April 2014 that Sanaz was subjected to a consistent level of institutional harassment, victimization and racism by those within the School of Media and Communication. It isn’t surprising that while Sanaz was making it known that she was not happy supervision, her supervisor team along with the head of the former head of the School of Media and Communication, Prof. Hesmondhalgh were behind the scene making it impossible for Sanaz to remain a PhD student.  On the 21st February 2011 Sanaz met with Dr. Klein, who she previously worked with and had recently done the seminars for the last course she taught on academic skills. Sanaz was informed that her teaching duties had been taken away due to 4 negative comments made in student evaluations concerning her teaching style.

As Sanaz states:

“Dr. Klein produced an A4 sheet of various comments written by students from a teaching evaluation form given from the Academic Skills course that I conducted seminars for in the Fall 2010 semester. I requested to see the original teaching evaluation form to see what question these comments were in reference to. Dr. Klein explained that the original student evaluation forms were not with her and that she did not think that I would be allowed to see these forms because of supposed confidentially issues. I was perplexed by this odd response- it seemed bizarre that I wasn’t allowed to see the original student evaluation forms that were intended on helping us better understand where we, as educators, needed to improve.  Yet Dr. Klein was given full reign to make a decision concerning my teaching without following procedure indicated in the Student Handbook. In the 1.5 years that I was a teaching assistant, I never received constructive feedback concerning my teaching practice as mandated by the Research Student Handbook. In fact, Dr. Klein and later, Dr. Cavangh, another lecturer I taught seminars under,  never sat in to observe my teaching as also required in the Research Student Handbook.  This was the first time something was said regarding my teaching style and I found the timing of it all very odd and very concerning.”

Sanaz went on to indicate, “I again reminded Dr. Klein that there are clear and regular procedures in place within the School of Media and Communication concerning teaching assistants. If there was any issue with my teaching practice that should have been made ahead of time using the procedure indicated in the Research Student Handbook rather than 1.5 years after the fact.  When I mentioned these facts to Dr. Klein, she did not seem interested in understanding the procedural violations that the School of Media and Communication was committing with respect to teaching assistants. When I asked Dr. Klein to provide me with solutions in order to improve my teaching performance, she suggested that I instead, “improve your personality.”

Since teaching responsibilities were directly tied to her scholarship, the department forced Sanaz to do administrative work in lieu of teaching for the School of Media and Communication. Essentially she was a glorified secretary for the entire department, working again well beyond the 250 hours mandated on her contract. Sanaz was required to do all logistic work for open days- meeting and greeting prospective undergraduate students, among other tasks. It would take the department 4 months to finally give a reason for the removal of Sanaz’s teaching- indicating that the department wanted to help her focus on her research. The reality was that the School of Media and Communication had saddled Sanaz with never ending administrative work that had no bearing on her PhD studies and was seriously distracting her from making progress on her research and fieldwork.

Bizarrely enough, the University of Leeds would go on to maintain that Sanaz’s scholarship was taken away accusing Sanaz of working beyond the allotted 250 hours on a EU funded project originally tied to her department, the School of Media and Communication, before transferring to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). However, after reviewing the documents related to her case, the campaign can clearly see that Sanaz was horribly exploited by her teaching commitments tied to her scholarship, routinely working beyond the 250 hours indicated in her contract and never provided training to deal with the particular responsibilities of her position.

In fact Sanaz indicates, “One the last module I was a seminar leader for, Academic Skills, it was the teaching assistants that were responsible for handling VLE communication in addition to any other administrative tasks, for a class size of above 90 students. In addition to the 3-5 hours spent preparing for seminars, I would spend an additional 2 to 3 hours daily answering student questions submitted through the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). Despite being on a scholarship, I strongly felt that I was being used as little more than cheap labor for the up-keep of the program. The department didn’t care about mentoring my teaching practice much less any other TA’s. They were also underpaying TAs below the minimum wage and expecting us to somehow be grateful that we were getting paid at all! Many of those not on studentships were barely surviving, much less making ends meet.”

Through her own initiative, Sanaz successfully completed an Staff and Departmental Development Unit (SDDU) course on teaching practice in May 2011. Despite the certificate gained, the School of Media and Communication insisted on giving Sanaz more administrative tasks rather than helping to mentor Sanaz with her teaching practice.

When students found out that Sanaz had been demoted to administrative work and that the School of Media and Communication refused to give her any further teaching, they  independently wrote to Dr. Klein in support of Sanaz, a few of these letters which you can read in the photos below:

Letter support Emily

From Emily: “Sanaz was engaging and enthusiastic…and provided the class with a friendly and stimulating space within which to discuss pertinent issues raised in the corresponding lectures. Sanaz’s PhD project is of great interest to me and with a shared love of Iranian cinema we began to talk outside of the classes about our interests of cinema and films created of the Iranian diaspora. This shared enthusiasm for cinema has given Sanaz the opportunity to invite and involve me in various conferences and film screenings that Sanaz has organized or given papers at.”

Letter support Lewis Allison

From Lewis: “I also liked Sanaz’s open teaching method, she encourages the class to discuss topics between themselves while also keeping the pace of the seminars quick and flowing. Whereas, it has been known for seminars to stall creating unease within the room, Sanaz manages to fill in the blanks of knowledge, creating an atmosphere that allows people to voice their opinions without hesitation.”

Letter support Micky

Mickey: “At the Institute of Communication Studies International undergraduates are few and it was sometimes intimidating for non-British students such as me to express our ideas because we are a tiny minority and our frames of reference are completely different. Because she is Iranian-American, and therefore also a foreigner in the UK, Sanaz was able to establish a strong connection with international students. She made me feel confident about sharing my ideas to our seminar group. In fact she made it a point to make everyone share their ideas and opinions no matter how quirky or different they were.[…] I have had the privilege of personally engaging [with] Sanaz in various debates and have always learned something new and interesting from it. I have been consistently impressed by her wealth of knowledge and her attitude towards teaching. She is an invaluable tutor and I would recommend her without reservations.”

Letter support Louise

From Louise: “…Sanaz has even gone that extra mile to help me with other modules not taught by herself during my first and second year at Leeds. She gave me guidance with a number of different topics she had knowledge of and assisted me with essay structure and referencing.[…] Her enthusiastic, helpful, and reliable nature all contribute to her being an excellent teaching assistant.”

As these letters and many others indicate, Sanaz is a competent and professional teacher who deeply cared about her students and their intellectual and personal well-being. As the Justice4Sanaz campaign has maintained, taking away Sanaz’s teaching, along with her scholarship had nothing to do with her competency as a teacher and budding scholar- it was designed to harass, abuse and force her out of academia.

The University of Leeds skillfully exploited Sanaz’s precarious status as a non-EU international student in a PhD studentship by overworking and piling on teaching responsibilities and later administrative work well beyond the 250 hours stipulated in her contract. However, when Sanaz complained about her treatment, the department then changed their narrative on why her teaching and later scholarship was removed, citing lack of progress and later punishing her for taking up employment on a EU funded research project that was initially tied to the University of Leeds. The victimization and abuse that Sanaz face at the University of Leeds was designed to send a message to not only her but other PhD students, especially non-EU international ones that if they too complained in a similar fashion about the lack of supervision, this would be the treatment that they should expect to receive.

During the Justice4Sanaz University Tour, where Sanaz spoke at many universities such as Oxford, University of Warwick, University of Birmingham, University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield to name a few, she got to meet non-EU international PhD students who discussed the exploitative manner that they were being treated their own respective studentships- overworked, underpaid and consistently threatened from speaking out about the abuses happening within the departments that the taught in. Other non-EU international students not on studentships, often people of color, discussed how they were being overlooked for teaching positions while their white British and EU colleagues were consistently promoted for teaching jobs and part-time research positions. In all cases, Sanaz was told how difficult it was for graduate students to speak out, even as a group and how unions, such as UCU were actively ignoring the plight of non-EU international PhD students being mistreated and abused on studentships and seasonal teaching contracts.

The Justice4Sanaz campaign would like to work with FACE to expose how non-EU international PhD students on studentships are not only being exploited like their British and EU counterparts, but also being forced into silence because their studentships are directly tied to their visa and right to study in the UK. We want to see a fairer system put in place that not only cultivates good teaching practice, a living wage, and full employment status for PhD students working in universities, but also a system that does not actively discriminate against PoC PhD students and treat in a deplorable and hostile manner non-EU international PhD and early career researchers.


About justice4sanaz

For 3 years, Sanaz Raji, a non-EU international student from the United States, has waged a fearless and brave fight against institutional aggression, bullying, and racism from the School of Media and Communication (formerly the Institution of Communications Studies) University of Leeds. The School of Media and Communication took away Sanaz's scholarship in August 2011, only 2 weeks before the start of her third year into her PhD studies. The School of Media and Communication breached their own procedures and rules concerning evaluating student progress. By taking away Sanaz's scholarship, the School of Media and Communication prevented her from continuing her studies in addition to having a decent standard of living with food and shelter that all students expect as a human right. In waging her battle for equal rights for non-EU international students, Sanaz was evicted from her university accommodation in May 2014, threatened with an ASBO (anti-social behavior order) and now fighting against deportation. All non-EU international students should have the right to challenge their universities for their failings without the threat of harassment or deportation. Justice4Sanaz is a movement to redress the failure of the student movement to discuss the myriad of ways that non-EU students, especially those who are people of color, are silenced, bullied and threatened within the neoliberal British university system.
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