A research-intensive university is having preliminary discussions about changing the status of its PhD students.
Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary University of London, said that the institution is considering whether PhD students might be counted as employees in the future.
He said that it was “extremely likely” that some universities may make changes of this type in the next decade or so.
But academics have raised concerns about the idea, which they say could “prolong the agony” for early career researchers who may still struggle to find future academic positions.
At the majority of universities in the UK, PhD candidates are treated as students, but in some institutions, usually those that are not research intensive, individuals may be taken on as research assistants and work towards a PhD. However, PhD candidates are considered employees in many other European countries.
Professor Gaskell said that at Queen Mary almost half the research outputs submitted to the research excellence framework in the areas of medicine and dentistry had PhD students as first authors.
“Doesn’t that tell us something about the roles that these individuals play in the totality of our research enterprise?” he told Times Higher Education. He said that such individuals, who are “making a critical contribution” to research, could be thought of as fellow researchers in the early part of their careers.
He admitted that there are substantial practical obstacles to overcome, such as the expectations of funders in terms of PhD completion times or an individual’s tax position. But these should not discourage universities from working towards “a position that is more fundamentally logical”, he said.
Professor Gaskell also conceded that there would be “real practical difficulties” in implementing the changes for international students, who often come to the UK specifically to gain a PhD qualification.
But he added: “It is very easy to come up with a long list of practical difficulties and reasons why not to do this when in fact we should be taking it very seriously.”
He said that the employee model was not “fundamentally incompatible” with the research council approach of training PhD students in cohorts through doctoral training centres. Both want to make PhD students a part of the broader research community, he added.
Sally Hancock, research associate at the University of York’s department of education, said that she could see the perceived benefits of such a transition, but that it also had drawbacks. It could potentially put people off doing a PhD if they did not want an academic career, she said.
“Also, is it just prolonging the agony of those who will struggle to find a postdoc [or] lectureship [by] giving the appearance of a more significant place in the academic community but without any longer term guarantees?” she asked.
Meanwhile, Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and head of Plymouth University’s graduate school, warned that the move would be more expensive for universities. He added that part-time and self-funded students may also pose a challenge to such schemes.
A statement from the Queen Mary Against Casualisation group, which campaigns for better treatment of casual workers including PhD students who teach, said that it “cautiously welcomed” Professor Gaskell’s suggestion.
But it added: “Without specific proposals, it is difficult to judge whether it would ultimately improve the lot of current postgraduates.”