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'End exploitation' of postgraduate researchers, UCU tells universities

1 July 2021 | last updated: 2 July 2021

UCU launches manifesto calling for universities to end the exploitation of PGRs.

Universities must give postgraduate researchers (PGRs) the same protections as university staff, UCU said today as it published its new 'postgraduate researchers as staff' manifesto

PGRs produce high-quality research that furthers their university's research outputs yet they do not get the same rights or pay as staff because they are classified as students. Non-funded PGRs even pay to produce data that the university takes ownership of. As a result, PGRs miss out on terms and conditions that are afforded to colleagues on employment contracts, including sick leave and parental leave.

UCU said this is an injustice and that employers must agree to the principle that PGRs are treated as staff so they can access benefits. The union also said PGRs who deliver teaching, often known as graduate teaching assistants, must be put on an employment contract. The manifesto says these contracts should not be zero hours and must include a job description, accurately contracted hours, rates and regularity of pay. Access to a pension scheme must be offered.

The manifesto also calls for funded extensions for the work of PGRs who have been impacted by the Covid pandemic. PGRs who became ill, were unable to access a suitable work environment, had caring responsibilities or were affected by school closures, must be supported to continue their work.

Proposals in the manifesto include:

  • PGRs being provided access to comparable terms and conditions as employees
  • PGRs being provided with adequate facilities to complete their research
  • PGRs granted access to regular feedback and support
  • Ending any requirement to deliver unpaid teaching duties as part of a scholarship, bursary or stipend
  • PGRs being included in staff meetings, mailing lists, projects and events.

The manifesto, which forms the next stage of the UCU's 'PGRs as Staff' campaign, will be distributed to UCU branches where it will be used to urge employers to sign up to its demands.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'PGRs produce high-level research and also deliver excellent teaching, but for some reason universities don't consider any of this to be work and treat them as students instead, exploiting them all the way. As a result, they miss out on some of the most basic benefits, such as access to sick leave and parental leave. In 2021, this is totally unacceptable, as is the practice of making some PGRs even pay for the privilege of doing research at a university.

'Our manifesto calls on universities to value their PGRs and to afford them the basic benefits that staff are able to access. We are also making very clear that those who deliver teaching must be put on proper employment contracts and that PGRs, wherever they are, should be supported in carrying out their research, provided with regular feedback, adequate facilities and be treated as part of the staff community - universities, which like to be seen as progressive institutions, can only benefit from signing up to these principles.'

Postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield Alex Kirby-Reynolds said: 'PGRs are angry and fed up with the way they continue to be treated, and justifiably so. Our work is essential to the success of the higher education sector and we produce world changing research, yet we are overworked, underappreciated, and subject to toxic work environments. It is disgraceful that many PGRs have to pay to work for universities. We want to be paid fairly for the work we do, have access to the same rights and benefits as staff, and be adequately supported to do our research. We aren't asking for much and, following the pandemic, it's time that universities stepped up.' 

See the full manifesto here.

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