I'm facing a situation at my university that I'm not sure is standard or ethical, and I'd like some outside perspectives. In certain courses, we have about 60 teaching assistants (TAs), all of whom are unpaid and volunteer for the role. Despite the large number of TAs, the workload remains quite high for each individual.

The intriguing part is that the professor in charge offers a recommendation letter, but only to those TAs who have volunteered for at least four semesters, not just one. I am questioning whether this practice is typical or ethical within academic settings.

Is it normal for universities to require such a long period of voluntary service for a recommendation letter, especially under a high workload with no compensation? Does this approach raise ethical concerns regarding the exploitation of student labor or the fair treatment of volunteers?

  • 3
    60 teaching assistants? How big is the course?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 18 at 14:28
  • About 180 students take the course each semester. @BryanKrause Jan 18 at 17:44
  • 4
    There is 1 TA per 3 students? How could their workload be so high? Are they actually doing work, or is their participation educational for themselves? What sorts of tasks are they performing?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 18 at 17:47

1 Answer 1


Not only would I regard this as unethical, I think there would be legal questions around this practice in the UK. All labour in the UK is subject to the minimum wage laws, irrespective of whether the person in question volunteers or not. There are specific exceptions for charity work (and even then the criteria are quite strict) and activities that are part of a recognised qualification.

The professor here might argue that this is part of your education, but I think this would be quite a difficult argument to make.

It is unethical because quite apart from being exploitive of student labour, it is discriminatory against those that have other responsibilities, such as caring responsibilities or the need to perform labour that does generate income.

  • Same answer for US and, I hope, everywhere. Abhorrent behavior.
    – Buffy
    Jan 18 at 13:07

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