Universities must treat postgrad researchers as staff, says UCU

Universities, “like to be seen as progressive institutions”, the union says, but they are “exploiting” postgraduate researchers

The largest higher education trade union said universities must treat postgraduate researchers (PGR) like staff – and not as students, as they currently do – because they produce research and teach undergraduates but do not receive the protections of contracted employees.

The University and College Union (UCU) published a manifesto (1 July) outlining its concerns and calling for these researchers to receive “comparable terms and conditions” to staff.

It wants PGRs to access the benefits of contracted staff, including pensions, sick leave, parental leave, contract working hours and regular pay. It also wants PGRs to receive feedback and support like other staff – and be given access to staff meetings, grievance and complaints procedures, mailing lists, projects and events.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said universities were “exploiting” these researchers, some of whom “even pay for the privilege of doing research at a university”.

Some PGRs help to produce research that “furthers their university’s research outputs”, while others, often known as graduate teaching assistants, support senior staff by teaching undergraduates. This latter group should gain an employment contract with guaranteed working hours and pay, the manifesto said.

The union has also called for funded extensions for PGRs impacted by the Covid pandemic. It also wants universities to guarantee study space and specialist equipment to PGRs.

Read more: New network for LGBTQ+ postgraduate researchers

“Universities, which like to be seen as progressive institutions, can only benefit from signing up to these principles,” said Dr Grady.

One PGR at the University of Sheffield, Alex Kirby-Reynolds, said they – and others – “are angry and fed up” at being “overworked, under-appreciated, and subject to toxic work environments”.

Last month, the Quality Assurance Agency observed in a new report that PGRs experienced “unprecedentedly high levels of stress” during the pandemic. The factors for this were “highly individual and complex combinations”, the report concluded – citing a lack of study space and specialist equipment, inability to conduct fieldwork, technical problems, caring responsibilities, bereavement, financial difficulties and isolation as factors.

Read more: PG research students: £8m funding for projects to tackle racial disparity

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