A Pretty Horrible Deal: Exploitative Conditions of PhD Research

In a guest article for Periscope Nottingham Keir Birchall discusses the exploitation of PHD students and the privileged position universities exploit to get them to work for free.

Since the introduction of university tuition fees in 1998 marketisation has run rampant through the higher education sector. Over the past two decades, undergraduate numbers exploded so universities can gorge on fees while staff are subjected to increased precarity, longer hours and declining rates of pay.

This degradation of working conditions has not gone unnoticed. Over the past few years, the University and College Union, which represents higher education staff, have organised sustained strike action on a scale not seen in the UK for decades. Those actions have been successful in highlighting the Dickensian working conditions of higher education but there are areas that haven’t received the attention they deserve. By drawing on my own personal experiences and recently published data, I will highlight how hundreds-of-thousands of UK PhD researchers are being exploited by the university sector to preserve their profitable reputations. 

What is a PhD and how do they benefit universities?

Studying for a PhD is the only option for anyone considering a career in academia or simply wanting to study a topic they love in depth. To obtain a place on a PhD programme in the UK, you will need a Master’s – or at the very least a first-class Bachelor’s – degree in a relevant subject. If successful, you will then have four years to undertake original research, culminating in the submission of a thesis – a detailed account of your work and conclusions usually measuring tens-of-thousands of words in length. This is, however, the bare minimum expected. 

Universities pitch PhD courses as training for academia so the student will conduct research under the supervision of a senior academic. As a result, students are also subjected to all of academia’s perverse pressures. For example, academics are constantly required to prove that their work is interesting and impactful in order to secure research council funding.

The ‘easiest’ way to generate that kind of attention is to get your research published in high-profile journal. However, these spots are in high demand and more likely to be given to someone with an established research portfolio which, of course, requires funding. This is a vicious cycle known as ‘publish or perish’.  So alongside their thesis, students are increasingly expected to publish papers in these journals.  Whilst this can be of benefit to the student should they want to pursue a career in academia, it can be a very time-consuming process and hamper progress towards completing their thesis work.

However, publishing is not only of great material benefit to the student but also to the university. Just like individual researchers, UK universities apply for funding through the Research Excellence Framework – a process where they audit all recently published work to highlight their impact. Naturally, any papers published by PhD students would be included in this submission. So, our research labour contributes directly to the university’s future funding.

Not only do universities materially benefit from our research but PhD students can also assist with undergraduate teaching – some institutions even make this mandatory. Whilst it mainly takes the form of marking coursework or assisting in labs, these roles are crucial to the functioning of a university’s teaching programme and can hugely affect the undergraduate experience. Having large numbers of postgraduate students on-hand to answers questions in labs or provide useful feedback on coursework dramatically improves a university’s reputation whether this is through word of mouth or National Student Survey scores. Both of these are crucial for successfully recruiting undergraduates and the fees upon which the sector depends.

Recent UCU strikes at University of Nottingham.

How are PhD students supported?

Since we contribute so much to the university we must be well compensated, right? Well, PhD students in the UK aren’t even employed by their university! Most, but not all, of us are supported through grants from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), the body governing the major research councils. For those students who are successful in acquiring a UKRI research grant, they will receive £15,009 in the academic year 2019/20.

recent Nature survey into the PhD experience found that the average PhD student works 47 hours per week, which equates to an hourly wage of £6.65. This is well below the minimum wages of £8.20 (ages 21-24) and £8.72 (25+) an hour. It looks even worse when you consider the 25% of respondents who work over 60 hours a week. Whilst the UKRI stipend does guarantee 28 days paid holiday, other rights like parental leave or enrolment in a workplace pension are not. Students whose funding comes from other institutions or charities are not guaranteed these meagre benefits and some even ‘self-fund’ their research, a phenomenon otherwise known as unpaid labour. 

Becoming a teaching assistant is one route for students to earn extra money, or simply help make ends meet. However, this crucial work is compensated through zero-hours contracts with no guarantee that claimable hours reflects the time taken to complete the tasks. To deliver an undergraduate seminar discussing coursework answers, for example, students need to complete a number of tasks: digest the material being delivered, on topics which they may not have studied for years; mark them, using answer sheets that are often poorly formatted, recycled from previous years or in some cases just wrong and finally, prepare and deliver the seminar. A few years ago, a handful of my colleagues were tasked with marking a particularly challenging quantum physics module with a mark scheme full of incorrect answers. Weekends were lost trying to collectively correct the mark scheme and provide detailed feedback to undergraduates. Marking alone took each of them upwards of eight hours, but the school guidelines said they were only allowed to claim for two! 

The worst part of this arrangement is that for the privilege of doing research for less than minimum wage, being denied basic employment rights and subjected to precarious contracts, UK universities still charge PhD students tuition fees! Whilst UKRI grants do include this in their funding package, this does not cover all students and it just perpetuates privilege by presenting another huge financial barrier to accessing research.

Naturally, the justification for this arrangement stems from our classification as students but this notion is ridiculous. We face the same pressures of academia, work similar hours and provide the same material benefit to the university as any member of full-time staff. We are workers, not students. We are highly skilled people doing an important job and should be compensated in kind. Compare our financial situation to that of a similarly qualified graduate. Their median income, one year after graduation, is £24,700 per year or £10.95 per hour (based on 47 hours work a week and 28 days holiday).  Whilst money isn’t the main motivation – a PhD is largely a labour of love – passion should not be used as an excuse to pay us less. Nor should we have to pay to perform labour!

What should be done?

People are starting to take notice of the plight of PhD students. The Higher Education Policy Institute recently published a report into the PhD experience and found that this financial arrangement as well as the toxic culture of long hours, discrimination and lack of support within academia has serious mental health impacts. They found that over a third of students have sought help for anxiety or depression, suggesting a much higher proportion are suffering in silence. The report advocates for comprehensive changes to research culture as well as funding arrangements. In particular they suggest the UK should follow the example of mainland Europe in treating PhD students as full employees. This status means that European PhD students have access to a pension scheme, parental leave and are paid salaries of up to £30k per year – Switzerland are particularly generous with average salaries of £44k per year. Implementing even this change, the report states, would go some way to improving mental health outcomes.

In my opinion, such changes would more accurately reflect the importance of the work PhD students perform and also provide consistency in employment: no more tiered rights or pay depending on who wants to fund your work. In addition, whilst recent history has shown employee status is no guarantee of good working conditions, such a position would provide a more concrete route towards unionisation and action that the field needs so desperately.

The University of Nottingham is facing cuts

Sweeping cuts brought about by pandemic-driven funding shortfalls have only accelerated this need for change. Scores of precarious employees are being let go, leaving permanent staff to pick up the slack, courses are being cancelled or stripped back and PhD students are not exempt from the fallout.  The University of Nottingham has been one of the first to announce that payment for teaching assistance will be axed. Any marking or demonstrating previously paid for with a zero-hours contract would now have to be done on a voluntary basis. This is a callous cost-cutting exercise as countless students depend on teaching money to survive, and this trend looks set to be repeated, in one form or another, at universities across the country. However, hope is not lost. Campaigns are being fought by PhD students in response to these pressures: from Nottingham students attempting to resist teaching pay cuts to national campaigns like Pandemic PGRs fighting for universal funding extensions. 

UK universities have been behind several major breakthroughs in the fight against covid-19 but they cannot hope to maintain their world-leading status without the labour of PhD students. We are workers, not students, and our contributions should be appropriately recognised and compensated. Universities, research councils and government should take these demands, and those of other higher education activists, seriously. If they fail to do so, and simply let our working conditions continue on their exploitative trajectory, then they risk not only a mass exodus of talent, similar to that feared in Australia, but they also imperil the UK’s position as a global leader in fundamental research.

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