Guest post by @RBU81
The regular dwellers and occasional lurkers of the Tomb
should be interested to hear of a campaign that has kicked off amongst
postgraduate workers in British universities for better pay and conditions. Their
starting point is a statement in support of basic employment rights, which
includes holiday pay, sick pay, and it is unfortunate but necessary to say, the
right to get paid full stop. They want people in HE to sign the statement in
the link below, and pass it round any networks they are involved with. Numbers
matter; they want 500 in a short space of time. Sign up
What is the Post
Graduate Workers Association?
The PGWA came together after a conference last month in
London that brought together over 50 PhD students to discuss the deteriorating
conditions of work for graduate employees in HE, and the state of the sector
more broadly. It was a modest affair, but did win backing from London Region
UCU and several student unions in London. It came out of shocking reports
of PhD students being asked to work take ‘teaching internships’ at some
institutions. Even at more financially
, unpaid overtime is the norm.
Research students employed in academic work are the junior
partners in both an academic and economic relationship with their institution.
This puts them in a uniquely vulnerable position at the best of times. It is
then no surprise that the funding crisis in HE is hitting this group hard, and
basic employment rights are being disregarded. This comes on top of increased
pressure from the REF to finish PhDs on time, and to teach with pressure of the
national student survey.
In only a month it has come into contact with 100s of other
PhD students in the same situation, and met groups who have had some success in
challenging their institution. Important next steps are making links with these
groups and planning for the UCU’s anti-casualisation day of action.
Why does it matter?
This group of workers may be perceived by some as relatively
privileged. Theirs is not, however, a privilege that puts food in the fridge. In
central London the Hare Krishna food handouts at SOAS and LSE are a de facto
postgraduate soup kitchen. It matters because of the real poverty that exists
for some in this position.
It also matters because the debates
about the future of union
movement are ones that are going to be proved in
The PGWA, however small and
nascent, points to a way of rebuilding union organisation amongst those not
traditionally represented in any sector. It undercuts some of the divisive but
fashionable arguments in academia about a precariat that has interests separate
to those with secure employment (the
up coming debate between Guy Standing and Ray Morell at Marxism 2012 will cover
If employers get away with these practices on what they see as the
periphery of their workforce, they will seek to implement them elsewhere.
Postgraduate workers belong at the centre of the UCU. Let’s
win back the old union idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.
@RBU81 is a 2nd year PhD student and as from next month the
Postgraduate Research Representative on the NUS NEC @RBU81. This article is
written in a personal capacity.