Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#BLOG Should PGRs be treated as staff or students?

This is a second of a series of blogs on PhD related issues at Loughborough University. The first blog explored mental health support at Loughborough. This second blog will briefly discuss whether PGRs should be considered staff or students. It is not the intention of the blog to delve too deeply into a debate already spoken about at length, but instead, after considering the basics of the issue, discuss some of practical changes, solutions and issues local to the PGR situation at Loughborough. Hope you enjoy and would love to hear your views, on a debate likely to divide opinion among both PGRs and staff.

It is worthwhile describing my experience of being a PGR and the many hats I have worn during my PhD. I count myself fortunate in many ways to receive the opportunities I have had during my time at Loughborough, but it is worth detailing here to make a point. In my three years, I have been a University Teacher on several modules, been subjected to the same dreaded module feedback ratings, the same inappropriate weekend and late-night student e-mails as anyone who has undertaken teaching. I have marked papers over Christmas. Been part of research teams that have contributed to REF. Organised conferences, both physically and virtually. Transcribed for papers. Held a more senior role with recruitment, and so on and so on! These are all things I was not permitted to do whilst an UG student, or a PGT student. So, my responsibilities have changed, but have my rights? Or how I am viewed by staff?

As a PGR I am exempt from paying tax. If I am honest, this is not something I am proud of, but given that my stipend is less than the average for a leisure theme park attendant  I won’t be complaining any time soon (NB I am not saying that leisure theme park attendant is not a worthwhile job!). In fact, one of the strongest arguments against PhD’s becoming staff is the exemption from tax, with the worry being that PhD’s would have to take pay cut. It may also be the case that fewer PhDs would be available as training a PhD candidate would be more expensive. Given the shortage of academic jobs, with some reports suggesting that 80% of PGRs want to remain in academia, but a lot less can and do (FLASHBACK TO DOC COLLEGE INDUCTION!!). And as some conditions for PGRs are far from ideal, in my insignificant opinion, it would not necessarily be a negative thing to have less PGRs if it meant the overall standard for PGRs would be improved.

One of the major issues with the PGR experience and I am sure this is true of a majority of HE institutions is that the campus and its mechanisms are built for the undergraduate experience. It leaves PGR’s in a position that their experience is actually less of that as a student. For example, the supremely high ranked Loughborough career services only has a part-time career service advisor for PGRs and there is no PGR representation on the exec team at the LSU. Whilst I am sure many PGRs take advantage of the numerous societies and sports opportunities, I would bet my rented flat that on average, undergrads use LSU societies at a far higher rate than PGRs. It is difficult then in this social sense, even with these few examples, to label PGRs as students, when for the majority, the experience is quite distinct from the student experience Loughborough is known for.

It would take another blog to debate casualisation and I do not intend to probe further in this blog. For a research university, such as Loughborough is, the hiring of PGR’s on casual contracts for modules is seen as a win-win for both sides. Staff get more time to spend on research, the PGR gets the invaluable experience of teaching. But there are issues with the system. If I fall ill, I will not get any compensation, I will only be paid for the hours I work. If the school has no funds to pay university teachers (as is bound to happen this year), I am let go. But not in the sense of being made redundant, just not contacted, not even told my services are not required, just not offered another casual contract. Of course, as a member of staff, I would be afforded far greater support because I have greater employee rights and it is in times of crisis for the university where PGR’s are particularly vulnerable to loss of funds and opportunity, but again another time, another blog.

Although a natural contrarian, I would not even suggest as a Rep in a committee meeting that PGR’s should be considered staff in regard to employment rights, pensions etc. but as Simon Gaskell the former Principal at Queen Mary University argued in 2015, employee status for PGRs should be the eventual goal. But an immediately achievable goal is for PGRs to be recognised for their contribution to Loughborough. Ultimately small things like being called and considered researchers not students, will not make a major material shift, but it is a start. I spend the majority of my day doing research, the only seminar I have been in in the last two years are ones that I have been leading and the only exam rooms I have been in are ones I have invigilated . It is only fair and realistic then that I am not described in terms of something I rarely am, a student. It is imperative that staff, who have often relied on PGRs for labour for research, teaching and marking, afford a level of respect to PGRs, so they are invited to Xmas Dos, or allowed to use staff rooms, and not exploited or taken advantage of.

PGR representation needs to be bolder and more confident. We are by far the smallest community, there are over 13,000 Undergrad students, there are close to 4,000 members of staff and only slightly over 1000 PGRs at Loughborough University. We are transitory, a new cohort emerges every 3-4 years. Partially as a result of this, the agenda shifts in committees from year to year making any ‘bottom-up’ progress particularly difficult to achieve and track. We need greater levels of communication across schools, and across universities, it has been great to see @pandemicPGRs emerge recently and I hope this type of collective action continues into the next academic year to ensure PGR concerns are expressed at the highest levels.

If we accept that the situation is not going to immediately change. Then what can be done structurally to help?  Firstly, the three SSLC meetings a year are designed towards the undergraduate experience. PGR’s are here all year around, and the committee meetings should reflect this. More information needs to be provided protecting PGRs from work with no pay or exploitation. More guidance on PGRs dealing with their personal finances. A full-time role in Careers Services dedicated to PGRs. A paid PGR position on the exec team. To name just a few things. Recent and ongoing problems around finances at the University make these aims more difficult to achieve, so it’s the responsibility of the current cohort of PGRs to keep them on the agenda.

Thanks for reading- any thoughts shoot me an e-mail at: N.Ritchie@lboro.ac.uk, or follow me on Twitter @NathanRitchie16.

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