As part of its ‘Distinctively Derby’ branding push, the University of Derby recently advertised ‘up to 11 full-time PhD studentships to be held as Graduate Teaching Assistantships’. Billed as ‘great opportunit[ies] for suitably qualified and ambitious students’, these positions involve ‘work[ing] with our academics to address a predefined research topic’ while undertaking a ‘limited amount of teaching’—the precise extent is never actually specified, either in the advert or on the university web page to which applicants are directed. In return, students will receive a £14,100 p.a. stipend for three years.
There is nothing unique about these studentships, applications for which close tomorrow. In recent years, universities have increasingly tried to cut staff costs by offering awards which mimic those offered through Research Councils UK (current stipend rate £14,057 p.a.) while piling on unremunerated teaching. Similar positions have been used by the universities of York, Kent, Leicester, UCL and a number others. But Derby’s advert, with its euphemistic ‘to be held as’, gives the lie once and for all to the idea that these sorts of teaching studentships are a reasonable or fair form of academic labour.
The standard RCUK studentship rate, already pretty meagre, is designed to support students to work full-time on their PhD for, in most cases, a period of three years. While a small amount of teaching is allowed, the RCUK Training Grant guide makes clear that it ‘must not be compulsory and must be paid for at the [university]’s usual rate’. Teaching studentships offered outside the RCUK system have no such guarantee, meaning that PhD candidates can either be contracted to undertake a large amount of teaching as a condition of their award, or, in the absence of a formal contract, have unpaid work thrown at them whenever their institution deems fit. With most awards maintaining the standard three-year period, the overall effect on students’ academic progress is potentially catastrophic.
A former PhD candidate at UCL told FACE how the university simply stopped paying for teaching, despite it remaining compulsory for second- and third-year students on certain scholarships. ‘I wasn’t given a contract until well into my first year,’ she recalled. ‘One year they [i.e. management] doubled my teaching a week before September term started.’ Academic staff are all too aware of these bad practices. An employee at another London university described how ‘a recent graduate of mine wanted to take up such a studentship, even sacrificing the right supervisor for the opportunity to be funded. It devalues the research process and the opportunity for students to pursue research they want to do, and many applicants are absolutely clueless about the impact on their PhD and the exploitation involved in these opportunities.’ The supervisor persuaded her student to apply for a fully-funded studentship without teaching commitments instead, but emphasised that ‘many don’t know what they are getting into.’
Teaching studentships are generally designed to mirror research council awards, particularly in their financial aspects, thereby concealing the vast quantities of extra labour that many departments receive from these special arrangements. In some cases, however, there is a further level of concealment. In the University of Kent’s School of European Culture and Languages, five ‘50th anniversary scholarships’ were advertised this year, offering ‘a maintenance grant and a salary which will total an amount equivalent to that offered by the Research Councils for 2015’. Only when reading the small print would an applicant realise that, for every annual increment in the salary portion (in line with the national pay spine), ‘the scholarship element will be reduced so that the overall stipend paid will be as stated in the original award letter.’ In other words, students will be paid progressively less, in real terms, for every year of their PhD.
These exploitative positions, which require at the very least a good Master’s degree but pay significantly less than the Living Wage, aren’t only bad for the students who hold them. The existence of a readily available pool of what is essentially free labour, usually put to work on large, first-year undergraduate courses, allows universities to undermine the pay and conditions of other staff. In the event of strike action by unionised academic staff, PhD students can be made to pick up the slack, with the threat of academic sanctions if they refuse to meet the teaching obligations specified in their awards.
If your department or others in your institution offer these sorts of studentships—and especially if you’re a student in receipt of one—consider coming along to FACE’s next organising meeting, on August 25th at the University of Birmingham, to share your experience and help build a movement against the exploitation of academic labour across UK higher and further education. By combining local campaigns with strong organisation on a national level, we can fight casualisation and other forms of exploitation wherever they emerge, securing fair pay and conditions for all!
Photo: University of Derby T/B stairs, by Lottemess