Niall Coleman, Editor
Tuesday evening saw the launch of a highly critical report issued jointly between the University and College Union and the Students’ Union of Queen’s University. Entitled “Undervalued, Overworked, Taken for Granted: A Report on PhD Working Conditions”, the publication urges a reform of “exploitative conditions” placed upon academic staff amidst a backdrop of university marketisation.
The report calls for the attention “not only of QUB staff, but the whole UK higher education sector” in order to ensure that “the QUB slogan “We Are Exceptional” remains a phrase for outstanding research, and not a reference to “exceptional” (as in attypical) payment and teaching standards”. PhD students are found in the report to be under an “intolerable” degree of pressure in an analysis of data taken from 247 graduate students across all faculties following the Spring semester of 2016. Findings from the survey indicate that many PhD students feel deeply dissatisfied with many working issues, from unfair payment and unpaid marking of assignments, to unpaid office hours and a climate of “fear” amongst Teaching Assistants and other academic staff out of fear of losing their jobs upon speaking out.
One shocking claim within the report comes from a PhD student who has spoken out about turning to work in the sex industry, alleging that she is not alone in this practice, with other students doing similar in attempts to pay for their educational and academic development – “The university does not wish to address the issue of female students, many in financial crisis and from working-class backgrounds with no access to credit, working in the sex industry”.
The data reflected in the report suggests that many doctoral students across all faculties work unpaid, and in many instances under the minimum wage. Additionally, the report found students to have received late payments; tough deadlines, excessive workloads and in some cases a total lack of payment for completed work. In a statement issued by UCU at Queen’s, Union President Dr. Fabian Schuppert argued that the findings of the survey reveal a “deeply unwise approach of the university toward the PhD body”:
“Just over 40 per cent of respondents declared that they are expected to do work for which they don’t receive any pay. It is unthinkable that a university should be treating students in this way… the report highlights the extreme inequality of treatment between students from different schools; for instance, as concerns the compensation for marking exams. Even more alarmingly, for TAs (Teaching Assistants), the payment never fully corresponds to the time they devote to this crucial work. The most disconcerting result of the research consists in showing how the compensation for the PhDs’ work is in most cases under the minimum wage. It also means that their students are getting a bad deal; poor pay and rushed workloads have inevitable effects on teaching and assessment.”
Speakers at the launch included Dr Fabian Schuppert, UCU President at QUB, QUBSU President Seán Fearon, Dr Véronique Altglas, UCU Honorary Secretary at QUB, Oisín Hassan, QUBSU VP Education and Morris Brodie of the UCU PhD Group. Fabian Schuppert introduced the launch of the report, immediately drawing attention to the“little recognition and many obstacles” of life as a member of teaching staff. Véronique Altglas spoke of the crucial nature of relationships between the academic workforce and university management. “We are all consumers, and at the same time service providers. We are all currently being exploited by the same system within this university. As service providers in this institution, however, we may be seen as being in a ‘driver’s seat’. That may be the case – but right now, the tyres are going flat”.
Speaking at the launch, QUBSU President Seán Fearon and QUBSU VP Education Oisín Hassan both criticised the “democratic disenfranchisement” emplaced upon the Students’ Union by university management, through cuts to sabbatical officer positions and lack of meaningful engagement. Fearon highlighted the fact that PhD students lie in the threshold between ‘staff’ and ‘students’, therefore calling for a “joint and organised approach against the rabid marketisation of education”. UCU PhD Group representative Morris Brodie echoed the calls of previous speakers to “unionise and organise a PhD workforce”, stressing the growing issue of casualisation of staff contracts and payments below the minimum wage.
Plans for future campaigning remain to decided, although the possibility of strikes seemed present following discussion at the report’s launch, with Morris Brodie claiming that “If PhD students went on strike for two weeks, the university wouldn’t function”.
Despite the damning findings of the report, both UCU and QUBSU representatives remained optimistic on the prospects of their campaign to secure the five demands emanating from “Undervalued, Overworked, Taken For Granted: A Report on PhD Working Conditions”, listed below:
- There should be no more unpaid marking of exams or assignments.
- There should be no more unpaid office hours.
- Payment for marking should reflect the real time it takes to do required work.
- A new, fairer pay scale for various duties is proposed.
The optimism of the campaign comes following recent victories in the “u-turn” decision by the university to allow both Single Honours Sociology and Single Honours Social Anthropology to remain open after a series of protests from both Save Our Schools and Take Back Queen’s campaigns. Attracting significant media attention, the recent decisions come in a long line of public criticisms of the now notorious “Size & Shape Review”, which some allege to threaten departmental closures and cuts to staffing.