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Swift action from UCU prompts rethink of 'regressive' PhD teaching proposals from the University of Northumbria

30 June 2016

PhD students are a large and distinctive part of the modern higher education teaching workforce. Universities have historically had a pretty good deal from their PhD students, seeing them as a useful pool of cheap labour. Teaching and demonstration are portrayed as part of an 'apprenticeship', a career-building step which students should gratefully accept without too many questions.

This helps to explain why for years, some universities have got away with low pay rates, zero hours contracts and most scandalously, schemes that made unpaid teaching work a condition of research studentships. UCU and the NUS have been campaigning for years now to win improvements to the postgraduates' pay and conditions, agreeing a joint campaigning charter.

And we're beginning to see progress. Leading universities are beginning to take action, most productively through negotiations with the UCU, to improve the way they employ students. We've been assisted in this by the Research Councils taking a more enlightened view and establishing clearer guidelines for the employment of postgraduate students that reflect many of UCU and NUS's concerns.

This gradual shift in policy is of course uneven, but it is there nonetheless. All of which makes it more shocking that the University of Northumbria recently attempted to introduce a scheme to make unpaid teaching a condition of a studentship to study at the university. Justifying this move, the university resorted to an old argument that the students were being paid but through the bursary they would receive. But this flies in the face of advice from HMRC that makes it clear that bursaries are non-taxable training grants, not to be confused with taxable employment. This position now underpins Research Councils UK guidance which states that teaching and demonstrating must be paid through contracted employment.

The potential benefits of ignoring this advice for Northumbria are fairly obvious. Concealing 'pay' for teaching within the value of the studentship means that it's impossible to see what the rate is, there is no need to pay National Insurance contributions and there is no need to discuss enrolling PhD students in the TPS pension scheme. Given that the value of Northumbria's studentship was set at the recommended Research Councils minimum (£14,269), which is intended to be exclusive of any pay for teaching, then the amount that Northumbria envisaged paying its students must surely have been precisely zero.

UCU's reaction to this locally and nationally was swift and decisive. Both the local students' union and the UCU branch raised the issue with management only to be told that it was being introduced without consultation. The branch then contacted the chair of the Anti-Casualisation Committee Vicky Blake and the national union issued a press release slamming the university for its regressive proposal. As the threat of increasing press attention and reputation damage grew, the university announced that it was suspending its proposals and would discuss them further with students and the union. UCU naturally welcomed this move.

Hopefully, Northumbria will not repeat this error and will negotiate constructively with UCU and the NUS. But this episode has thrown up other examples of universities continuing to use unpaid PhD students to deliver their teaching and within our anti-casualisation campaigning, UCU will be looking to end this practice once and for all.

This episode also reinforces the enhanced importance for campaigning around university reputations. Universities desperate to trade on a brand for high quality to justify their fees are vulnerable to action that publicly exposes their workforce practices. We need to be prepared to use this to support our collective campaigning and bargaining for precarious workers in our universities and colleges.

Last updated: 30 June 2016