For postgraduate students trying to make ends meet, their university is an obvious first port of call when looking for paid work.
However, when traditional postgraduate opportunities such as teaching are unavailable, some students have found themselves short of options. In some cases, those who have taken on other roles at their institution have found themselves badly treated, underutilised and unhappy.
When Anna, a PhD student at a research-intensive university in the East of England, experienced financial difficulties, she approached her university for assistance in finding a temporary part-time job.
She was surprised to learn that, despite her active involvement in student societies and various environmental committees on campus, the only job the university could offer was working for the company to which it had outsourced its cleaning services.
“I did take the cleaning job. I was desperate for money, and I didn’t wish to come across as thinking I was too good for it,” she said. “I ended up cleaning Monday to Friday mornings for the next few months. It was an eye- opening experience.”
The job gave Anna an insight into the life of an outsourced university cleaner, and first-hand experience of the treatment they receive.
“The external contractors do not treat student cleaners well, but [instead deal with them] in a condescending manner,” she said. “They do not perceive them as professionals, but as an underclass. I have seen students being yelled at ridiculously for being two minutes late.”
The working conditions also left a lot to be desired, she said, with a low wage, paid monthly, and unsocial hours being just the tip of the iceberg.
“Productivity is not encouraged. Student cleaners are told that they must work the hours, which are 5am to 7am and 5.30pm to 7.30pm. If you finish 10 minutes early, you are yelled at. So instead you pretend you are doing something, or take your time.”
James, formerly a PhD student at a Russell Group university in the North of England, also approached his institution for help to find a job while he completed his studies.
While carrying out a number of administrative roles, he said, he experienced a “deeply ingrained negative attitude towards postgraduate students working in non-academic roles”.
Work, but not ‘real’ work
“If I told more senior members of academic staff that I was performing minor administrative duties, responses ranged from the patronising to the dismissive, telling me to ‘focus on my real work’. This was absolutely not the case if I was performing small academic tasks, which, even if the impact and the pay were negligible, were always seen as a good thing for the CV.”
According to James, a number of his friends doing similar jobs - which included answering phones and offering administrative support to academics - felt that the “standard academic/administrative tension was heightened when you were revealed to be involved in administration or support and were also an academic”.
“The impression I was given was that no administrative experience was at all helpful in landing an academic job - that there were no similar skills, no crossover, nothing. I would have thought that experience of how a department functions, plus demonstrating one’s ability to be collegial and analytical and able to work to deadlines, would have been a positive thing and not irrelevant at all,” he said.
He added that the students he worked with often came into conflict with researchers who were looking for assessments the students had been tasked with filing, or who wanted them to perform menial tasks that were not part of their job description.
“Quite a few academics - the same ones who were dismissive or rude about students - actively portrayed the support team as obstructive, irrelevant or just plain stupid. These attitudes were raised with surprising openness in departmental meetings,” James said.
“My friend routinely felt so patronised, marginalised and disrespected that she had to take several periods of leave. It was astonishing to see the level of obvious disrespect she was generally held in, even by former teachers.”
At Anna’s institution, the cleaners’ work was carried out at unsocial hours, when many of the university’s day staff were not present. As a result, academics did not know that their offices and toilets were maintained by students.
“I am convinced that if they did, they would have left the places so much cleaner,” she said. “Some international students told me that at their universities overseas, the cleaners come during the day - people get to know them, and this creates a mutual understanding and a much nicer working environment for everyone.”
She said that her cleaning co-workers were, in the main, “extremely bright and hard-working”, and that her university was missing a great opportunity to capitalise on a range of valuable skills.
“I met former managing directors, oil and gas professionals, and former employees of government ministries. Surely, these students - already experienced professionals - deserve work opportunities that match their skills and experience and a more dignified working environment than what they are given?”
Highly skilled but underutilised
James had similar grievances. “In terms of the specific roles I performed, they absolutely underutilised my skills,” he said.
“It’s always seemed crazy to me that [my university] doesn’t recruit more support staff from active students: they’re highly skilled, they’re eager, and they often have strong brand loyalty.”
But he told another story that could explain why students might be less than keen to seek employment at their university.
“A [student] friend of mine currently works in postgraduate recruitment for [another Russell Group university],” he said. “While she enjoys the work enormously, she’s been the victim of open disrespect several times.
“Once she was asked to give a talk to a number of science postgraduates about transferable skills from the PhD, where a lecturer in attendance frequently spoke over her, telling the students not to listen, and that this ‘girl’ didn’t know what she was talking about. Needless to say, she filed a formal complaint, but that doesn’t exactly fix the wider issues here.”
Danielle Grufferty, National Union of Students vice-president for society and citizenship, said it was unacceptable for students working for their university to be treated disrespectfully, regardless of the job they were doing.
“Academics looking down their noses at students doing administrative tasks should remember that students have bills to pay too and many will take work on the university campus that is vital to the effective functioning of the institution,” she said.
“Of wider concern is the persistent underemployment of many students and graduates. Research shows that there is a deficit of jobs that match the skills of jobseekers, and it’s important that employers, including institutions, recognise the benefits of putting the skills already gained by those in study to good use.”
Students’ names have been changed.