Today sees the University of Birmingham postgraduate open day, during which hundreds of prospective and, in the eyes of the university, highly profitable postgraduate students will pass through the great hall in search of a degree programme. Postgraduate students are an often overlooked section of the university community and face difficulties in terms of representation on campus, particularly within the Guild of Students where postgraduate engagement is low. The fees for postgraduate degree programmes are in most cases far higher than the yearly fees of undergraduates, and many students require external funding to undertake these programs. Unfortunately, under the processes of privatisation and austerity economics, many funding channels are being closed to postgraduates, with some turning to taking out vast personal loans to finance their studies.
Many postgraduates not only conduct their own research but also teach seminar classes to undergraduates within their field, and are thus central to the provision of education within an institution. Without the teaching roles fulfilled by these students, many of whom face significantly increasing workloads as a result of larger student-staff ratios, the university could not function. Unfortunately the University of Birmingham views such postgraduate students as a source of cheap, easily exploited labour, as many are employed through a scheme called Work Link. This scheme means that postgraduate students are considered as agency workers and not as contractual university employees that are entitled to be paid through the university payroll, be issued with a fixed term contract for their employment, and receive rights equivalent to permanent staff. As a result of this, postgraduate teaching staff do not enjoy the job security afforded by contractual employment in the form of employment particulars such as sick pay, notice period, pensions arrangements, suspension pay and holiday entitlement. Further, they are significantly restricted in their ability to challenge dismissals through employment tribunals, as they are not deemed fixed term employees.
If employed for periods of over 13 weeks, postgraduates fulfil the necessary tests to be considered as employees of the university, and not as workers, and yet are subjected to inscrutable practice in regards to receiving remuneration and a lack of basic employment rights. There have been many complaints by postgraduate teaching staff at the University of Birmingham surrounding late payment for work undertaken, with some complaining that they have not been paid since the beginning of the semester. It is clear that postgraduate students at this university are not only treated as cash cows, charged large sums for their degree programmes, but are being further financially exploited through the failure to provide the proper employment conditions and particulars in their role as teaching staff. We believe that postgraduate students should be seen as employees of equal status to any other university member of staff and should not be treated as agency staff through the Work Link scheme. We call for the university to extend full contractual provisions to postgraduate support staff and to immediately address any backlogs in remuneration that may have occurred.