Postgraduate students must unite to fight for their labour rights


There’s a crisis in the postgraduate world. Too many universities are refusing to pay their postgraduate students for the work they do – which is having a very damaging effect.

Participation in Higher Education has expanded significantly in recent years. Unsurprisingly, this means more people undertaking postgraduate and doctoral studies too; in fact, postgraduate students currently make up 23 per cent of all Higher Education students in the UK.

It seems extraordinary, but universities are damaging postgraduate education by pressuring their postgraduate students to do low-paid or unpaid teaching and marking work on top of their studies. What’s worse is that this exploitation of postgraduate students, and in particular doctoral students who work as lecturers, is becoming so acceptable.

Universities benefit enormously from their postgraduate students, both financially and from their research. In fact, postgraduate students generated over £1.5bn in 2008-09 for UK universities. Despite this, postgraduate students are required to pay for fees up front, even though they aren’t entitled to the same loan support as undergraduates.

A group of PhD students (including myself) from across the country have united to resist this increasing misuse of our academic labour and have formed the Postgraduate Workers Association. It’s in its early days, but our aims are simple: to work with UCU and NUS to ensure fair conditions for research students employed by universities and to help facilitate self-organisation of postgraduate students to oppose their exploitation.

If this were a conversation, no doubt I would have to pause now, to allow for the following accusations: ‘declining standards’, ‘too many PhD students’, ‘polytechnics should never have been given university status’ and, of course, ‘this was happening 30 years ago when I was at university’.

The struggles that postgraduate students continue to endure comes at a time of increasing marketisation of Higher Education, escalating commodification of university products and the looming fear of privatisation of the ‘public’ university. The Higher Education sector is becoming heavily reliant upon casual staff, and postgraduates are too often employed as lecturers paid by the hour. A report by the University and College Union (UCU) estimated that there was a record number of 77,000 hourly paid teachers in Higher Education in the UK in 2009-10.

But there is also a more alarming element to the working conditions of postgraduate students. I am not simply talking about a PhD student volunteering to teach a couple of hours a week on a subject they love talking about. What we are fighting is clear labour exploitation.

I’ll provide some examples, leaving the universities unnamed to protect the whistle-blowers.

  • Scholarship/bursary students are often expected to work on an unpaid basis, regularly teaching and marking up to three modules a week. This especially affects international students who might enter a contractual agreement with the university to undertake this work in order to receive a bursary to cover only the cost of their fees. They are then left with no time to undertake any type of paid employment to support their living expenses.
  • Some PhD students have been made to supervise a substantial amount of undergraduate dissertations for free – sometimes a larger amount than many established lecturers would have to supervise – just because they were receiving a scholarship.
  • Some universities are assigning teaching work as ‘part of the course’. At one university, students enrolled in a PGCE are made to teach undergraduates for free, denying this work to established lecturers.
  • In some cases where PhD students have refused to undertake an increasing workload, they have been harassed and manipulated with comments of the consequence of such behaviour on their future job prospects in the university.

You might wonder why all postgraduate students simply just don’t refuse to do it?  But we are living in the era of increased individualisation and, of course, not all PhD students are forced to teach for free. Some actually want to partake in this. Indeed, some PhD students are annoyed that others are attempting to stand in the way of ‘opportunities’ to enhance their CVs.

But to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Put simply, the phenomenon of postgraduates working for free allows the most financially well off to take advantage of this ‘opportunity’, at the expense of all others with the ability and desire to study at a postgraduate level, simply because they can afford to support themselves through other means. This way, they gain both work experience and wider academic networks benefiting their future employment prospects, disguising the social inequalities that still saturate academia. This is not about meritocracy or ‘survival of the fittest’ as some commentators will undoubtedly suggest. This is another form of social closure in British society.

It can be problematic to measure the socio-economic backgrounds of those students taking a postgraduate qualification, as the data would suggest they might come from a higher social economic class than their families since they have already completed a degree. However, a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that undergraduates who were the first in their family to go to university and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to progress on to postgraduate study. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds were also more likely to study a postgraduate qualification part-time, and statistically those studying a PhD part-time are less likely to complete than those studying full-time. This raises serious questions for social mobility, as those with postgraduate qualifications are more likely to be employed in managerial and professional occupations and earn more on average than those with just an undergraduate degree.

This whole situation is made much worse by rapidly increasing tuition fees. With a three-year course at university costing up to £27,000 in tuition from this September, UK universities are now more subject to market competition than ever before. As such, universities position their own institution within the education market and against other universities. This seeps down to every level as the commercialisation of knowledge leads to internal struggles between universities’ schools, departments, academics and indeed doctoral students themselves, which partly explains why some PhD students are more than happy to promote themselves over others by working for free.

The Postgraduate Workers Association plans to actively resist such dichotomies, while fighting for those postgraduate students who have been forced to undertake exploitative labour.

Jenny Thatcher is a PhD student and a co-founder of the Postgraduate Workers Association

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