Uni hires more and more TAs
Somebody has to fill the gaps
The department of artificial intelligence at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) is suffering from a huge lack of staff, but the students keep on coming. Their solution has been to hire more TAs.
‘We have hundreds of TAs walking around’, says education director Fokie Cnossen. They supervise tutorials and give practicals, but they also mark exams and assess papers.
The number of teaching assistants at the university has been increasing for years now, and not just at artificial intelligence. Between 2016 and 2019, the total number of TAs at the UG increased from 933 to 1,211. During the Covid years, that number kept on ballooning. In 2020, there were 1,505 and in 2021 a record number of 1,749 TAs.
‘Lecturers had to do extra work during the pandemic’, says Faculty of Arts vice-dean Roel Jonkers. Arts increased its number of TAs from 194 in 2020 to 285 in 2021. ‘And even now they’re setting up courses in the new learning environment.’
TAs are invaluable to help with that kind of extra work. They update learning environments, grade assignments, lead tutorials, answer student queries, supervise the health and safety of labs, and perform a myriad of other tasks.
Sometimes TAs are not qualified enough at the start
At the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, there were nineteen TAs in 2016 and sixty-three in 2019. Associate professor Viktor Venhorst is surprised by what he refers to as a ‘dramatic difference’, but he can’t explain what led to this increase.
‘In the way that our faculty uses them, I think it’s perfectly fine’, he says. ‘They help out in the practical sessions, which allows us to intensify education in ways that otherwise might not have been possible.’
Jack of all trades
Indeed, you can ask TAs to do almost anything. Vlad Iftime is a TA at artificial intelligence. He lightens the professors’ load by teaching a few two-hour tutorials, in which he dives into a specific topic more in-depth. But he’s also a lab assistant, grades assignments, and sometimes supervises at exams.
‘Sometimes TAs are not qualified enough at the start’, he admits. ‘But if they put in extra work to understand a topic, they can answer the students’ questions. As for the grading, I would say it usually depends on the professor. It’s mostly their job to give us a good grading sheet and guidelines.’
TAs are basically a very cheap way to get a job done. They are only paid around 500 euros a month, although this number varies greatly depending on their hours and whether they have more than one contract. A professional lecturer’s salary starts at around 3,400 euros a month. Hiring a TA also means that the UG doesn’t have to enter into any lengthy contract agreements: students are easier to get rid of. And some of these TAs are master students, so they have the right education.
But the danger is that they’re being used as jacks of all trades, doing work they’re not meant to do.
‘I don’t think that there is proper control on where we spend our money on with TAs’, says Marco Koopman, who is the coordinator of the PhD Academy at FSE. ‘Are they only used for educational support? Or are they also assigned jobs or tasks that really ought to be dealt with by regular staff?’
Koopman is not against the use of TAs. ‘But if it’s related to administrative support for instance, I’m not in favour of having TAs do that. I think that’s wrong’, he says. He fears the situation might get out of hand. ‘I would like to see more, or better, checks and balances.’
You can’t have a course without TAs
Cnossen too, prefers to see all courses taught by scientists, especially when it’s a master course. ‘However good our teaching assistants are, they don’t have the scientific experience that a PhD student or a teacher has’, she stresses.
However, with 725 students and less than twenty staff members, that is simply impossible. ‘For us it’s not about filling gaps’, Cnossen says. ‘It’s part of our structure. They are part of our programme.’
It’s a delicate balancing act. If the university relies too heavily on TAs, it risks diluting the quality of education. And it’s not as if it’s hassle-free: you have to put out a call for applications, interview students, and train the TAs.
On the other hand, if the university doesn’t hire enough TAs, lecturers that already feel overworked will struggle to correct all the assignments and exams and to be present at every tutorial. This stress gets amplified especially in cases where there is already a lack of staff, as is the case with artificial intelligence.
‘You can’t have a course without TAs. It’s impossible’, says astronomer and head of the FSE faculty council Mariano Mendez. ‘I cannot teach a course of three hundred students without them. I need people to do the homework, to do the tutorials. Whether that’s a student teaching assistant or an employee assistant, you need someone to help you.’
‘As a lecturer, you have to organise the course in the best way possible. And in my case, that requires intensive education. And the best way to organise that is by enlisting these teaching assistants’, says Venhorst.
Still, others question whether the status quo should be maintained. The practice of using TAs as lecturers is detrimental to TAs, students, and staff, American Studies lecturer Lee Flamand feels. He appreciates TAs in principle, he stresses, but they should only teach under direct professional supervision.
This practice takes jobs away from lecturers
‘It exploits those TAs who are hired to do support work and not teach. They are also not yet qualified by a degree to do so. And it’s bad for lecturers and professors as a professional class, as this practice takes jobs away from our group, many of whom are chronically underemployed or unemployed’, says Flamand.
He believes the university is looking the other way when this happens. ‘Partly because it helps the bottom line to hire cheap and easily disposable TAs, rather than experienced and credentialed lecturers.’
Mendez isn’t afraid the quality of education is suffering or that TAs are ‘taking over’, though. ‘I teach a first year mathematics course’, he says. ‘For that course, I don’t need a specialist that has the top knowledge of how things work. I need people who know basic mathematics. And the students know basic mathematics.’
And there are other pros to using them, adds Cnossen. ‘The threshold for students to ask their TA lecturer questions is often lower.’
Erik Meijles, associate professor at spatial sciences, thinks the university has a good structure in place with the TA system. ‘It’s a very valuable addition to the full range of teachers we have available. I don’t see it as a backstop or a way to fill in the gaps.’