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‘Exploited’ PhD students finally get paid

The University of Sussex is reimbursing some of the Graduate Researchers who have been working for the University but receiving no payment.

In January, the Postgraduate Association (PGA) called on the University of Sussex to end what they described as the “exploitation” of the students in the School of Life Sciences.

They found that it is against Research Council guidelines to require students to undertake unpaid teaching as part of their PhD, and The University has now reimbursed many of the affected students.

Students who work directly for the University with no funding from the Research Council are not being reimbursed,

A new contract is being negotiated.

According to the university, the unpaid PhD students were on a Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) contract, “which sets out the teaching commitment in exchange for fees paid and a stipend.”

Annie Macpherson, one of the affected assistant tutors, explained: “we were required to do 50 hours’ teaching a year although they never chased us up if we didn’t do it.” However, some students worked many more hours.

The Postgraduate Association now estimates that assistant tutors did between 50 and 150 unpaid hours of undergraduate teaching a year.

The University stressed that “this is a legal contractual arrangement and remains so across the sector” and said that “the University has decided not to offer these contracts any more as they guarantee teaching on entry without a quality measure for delivery.”

They have decided to transfer all PhD students on a GTA contract to a grant, “with no requirement of teaching”.

However, the new contracts have not yet been finalised. Negotiations are ongoing with trade unions (especially the University and College Union) and the Postgraduate Association.

The University assured The Badger that “the current zero-hours AT contract” is being replaced and that assistant tutors are now on a “temporary fixed-term contract, advertised to all PhD students, which sets total hours required plus rate for the work – this is an interim measure pending agreement of the new fixed-term contract. No PhD student has a guaranteed right to teaching; competitive and transparent open interviews are used to allocate new contracts linked to quality of delivery for any renewal.”

Rose Taylor, Education Officer, said: “after campaigning by the PGA, they managed to receive reimbursements for any work that any associate tutors undertook unpaid (backdated to January 2014) as long as those students were part or fully funded by the Research Council. However, those who are fully funded by the University have not been reimbursed at all as they are not bound by Research Council guidelines.”

Rose is working alongside associate tutors Annie and Tom to achieve “fairness”. One PhD student who got in touch with Annie claims that the work reimbursed only extends back to the Autumn Term 2014/2015 and that he “undertook a larger quantity of unpaid teaching before this date, this was not reimbursed.”

Assistant tutor Tom said: “when I was offered a PhD, it was not something to refuse and I just assumed teaching would be part of it. I really enjoy the teaching, I always have. Then you start to learn about the inequalities, doing the same as someone else who gets paid for the teaching plus multipliers and you get nothing for it. You end up delving deeper into the situation and realise that the whole scenario has been cynically constructed by management in the grey areas of legality. Then realising they have been rumbled, they try too quietly backpay a handful of lucky PhDs that won the Research Council funding lottery and hope the problem goes away. The whole thing is horribly underhand.”

As part of her campaign, Annie Macpherson has contacted MP Caroline Lucas and written an opinion piece for this newspaper (see page).

The new contracts are due to come out in January 2016 and aim to “standardise the working conditions for assistant tutors as they are really uneven across the schools”.

Freya Marshall Payne

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