Ever wondered why some of your assessment feedback was so vague and lacking in helpful improvements? You may be unaware, a travesty has been occurring under your noses.

For several years now, the University of Sussex has been exploiting PhD students across Life Sciences and several other departments – contractually obliging them to teach (and mark the work of) undergraduates for free. To receive their PhD funding, they were required to teach between 50 -120 hours per year, dependent on the School.

Recently, after a large battle led by the Postgraduate Association Chair and a handful of PhD students, it was discovered that it was in fact illegal to force Research Council-funded PhD students to teach for free.

The University of Sussex had chosen to ignore a clause in their funding guidelines, which protected these students from being forced into unpaid labour.

This led to the back-payment of all externally-funded PhD students across Life Sciences, which has now also been extended to Mathematics and Physical Sciences, for any teaching they had under-taken since February 2014.

The cost of teaching ranges from between £12.50 to £18.50 per hour – so this was no small sum for the University to pay up. They refused however, to pay School-funded students, as they are deemed to not be protected by the guidelines put in place by the UK Research Council.

However, now, in line with these guidelines, the University of Sussex has changed the contracts of all PhD students to remove the unpaid teaching requirement. As of September this year, PhD students can now choose to teach and be paid, if they wish.

The University of Sussex consistently scores poorly on the marking and feedback criteria of the National Student Survey. For such a prestigious University, so highly regarded in University rankings, this is very unusual.

The PhD students teaching and assessing your seminars, tutorials, essays and exam papers are more than qualified. Perhaps then, the poor feedback is because they were unpaid, untrained, and not recognised as academic staff?

We are currently investigating the legitimacy of this unpaid teaching requirement in relation to School-funded PhD students. We have several reasons to believe they are entitled, like their Research Council-funded peers, to a reimbursement for the teaching hours they have completed.

Doctoral School Staff on several occasions have been clear about their commitment to ensuring all PhD students will be regarded and treated as equals, with no ‘second class citizenship’ status enforced on School-funded PhDs, which has occurred so commonly in the past. New teaching contracts for all PhD students now follow the Research Council’s guidelines – including no enforced teaching.

Yet, school-funded PhDs have lost on average over £1100 each for previous unpaid teaching, labour deemed unacceptable by government-funded research councils.

Our University of Sussex has chosen to selectively treat the PhD students it funds itself as less equal than those it receives funding for.

We have not even looked into the legality of attaching unpaid labour onto a student’s funding yet. We have also discovered several University of Sussex PhD positions were advertised as partly externally-funded (entitled to a reimbursement, and a stronger CV), but it now appears they are 100% School funded (no reimbursement for you).

As students are now considered as consumers, could this be in breach of The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, regarding false advertising of a PhD position?

The University management have been dismissive, aggressive and condescending to our ongoing wishes to open up a dialogue with them about this issue. We have communicated our concerns to deaf ears, in the classic avoidant nature seen so commonly across University of Sussex Management when students wish to raise concerns which regard university spending.

Whilst we continue to fight for back-pay for the school funded PhDs, perhaps you will notice an increase in the quality of your assessment feedback… Good luck with your 2016 assessments.

If you want to get involved, please contact: pgeducation@sussexstudent.com


Annie Macpherson

Image: Jisc

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