Durham University has been labelled “shameful” in a row about how it pays its junior academics, after its theology department was caught advertising unpaid teaching jobs on the university’s website.

The university has been faced particularly harsh criticism as it charges its students the maximum tuition fee of £9,000 per year. The news comes as it was announced earlier this week that the Office of Fair Trading is planning a review of whether students are getting value for money from their university courses.

The “voluntary development opportunity” is pitched at postgraduate (PhD) students who wish to gain “valuable experience of designing and delivering an entire short taught course” at the university’s Theology and Religion department.

UCU, a union that represents academic staff at universities, has condemned Durham’s stance. It insists that all teaching work – but especially that which requires preparation work – must be paid. Jon Bryan, a regional support official for the union’s northern office, told the Independent:

“Paying postgraduate students appropriately for designing and delivering a short course was something we thought that we could all agree on, but apparently not.

“At a time when Durham charges the full £9,000 fees for undergraduates, those who attend these seminars would be expecting some of that money to reward those who are designing and teaching these short courses. The fact that they are not being paid for doing that job for the University is shameful.”

A spokesperson for Durham University claimed that the seminars had been set up due to “demand from our postgraduate students, who wanted to broaden their teaching experience for their own professional development”. She said:

“Participation is entirely voluntary and feedback has been positive from both the postgraduates designing and delivering the courses and the undergraduates who take them. A wide range of paid teaching assistant opportunities are also available within the department.”

Bryan confirmed that the university seemed to have no intention to pay these volunteers, adding that UCU will continue to oppose the policy, and “seek to get the work properly remunerated”. He said:

“The university may justify not paying the work by saying that it is ‘development opportunity’ but that is no excuse. For UCU, that justification just doesn’t wash.”

Here is the text of the advert in full:

The Department is offering a voluntary development opportunity for PhD students to apply to design and offer a short course of Extracurricular Seminars for undergraduate students.

The scheme allows postgraduates to acquire valuable experience of designing and delivering an entire short taught course. This is an opportunity to deepen and broaden your teaching experience, to support your career development and to enhance your future employment prospects, as well as a chance to become more fully integrated into the life of the department in its undergraduate teaching role.

If your application is successful, you will design and run an extra-curricular course comprising one contact hour per week for four weeks, primarily but not exclusively geared toward Level 1 undergraduates. You will have a mentor for your course from among the academic staff in the department to provide support and to enable you to get the most professional development from the opportunity.

The programme is timetabled and formally supported by the Department through the provision of photocopying allowances; administering student feedback forms; and advertising the seminars to undergraduates across the university. Your seminars will appear on your departmental training transcript.

PLEASE NOTE: Participation is voluntary for everyone concerned. The programme is entirely optional for postgraduates and undergraduates. As this is a voluntary career development opportunity the course leaders are not paid and the undergraduates are not assessed and receive no credit. Undergraduates who choose to participate are asked to commit to attending a full four-week course as a courtesy, but are under no obligation to do so.

Graduate Fog is disappointed to see Durham University – where the founder of this website studied – post this kind of advertisement so brazenly. It is even more disappointing that when questioned they have not even offered to review their practices. At the time of writing this blog post, the advert was still up…


Is this a genuine opportunity for PhD students to gain experience? Or is Durham University just trying to sell free teaching to undergraduates by taking advantage of its postgraduates?

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