University of Sussex PhD students demand back pay for ‘unpaid teaching’

Life sciences PhD candidates believe they are owed money for teaching undergraduates as a condition of funding

December 8, 2015
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Source: Rex
Classroom action: request for payment ‘could have huge implications’ across the sector, says doctoral candidate

Doctoral students who were required to deliver up to 50 hours a year of unpaid teaching are demanding reimbursement for their labour.

Some 20 PhD students at the University of Sussex’s department of life sciences say they are owed back pay of £1,100 each for hours worked under a previous contract, in which they were asked to teach undergraduates for free as a condition of their PhD funding.

Their demand comes after Sussex refunded all research council-funded PhD students for any teaching done since February 2014 after it was discovered it was illegal to force them to teach for free.

However, those funded by Sussex itself have been told they will not receive any back pay, despite a change of contracts which allows PhD students to choose to teach, and be paid, if they wish.

“Changing the contract is a great development and it shows the university is listening, but we feel we are deserving of the back pay received by externally funded PhD students,” said Annie MacPherson, a life sciences PhD candidate who is leading the campaign.

“Sussex has expressed a desire for equality between school-funded and research council-funded students and this is an important part of this,” added Ms MacPherson, who addressed Fighting Against Casualisation in Education's annual conference in London last month.

While the issue of back pay for unpaid teaching relates to just over 20 PhD students in life sciences, Ms MacPherson believes more than 100 PhD students across the entire university could be entitled to money.

Many thousands of school-funded PhD students across the sector could also be affected by the issue of unpaid teaching as a requirement of funding, she added.

“This could have huge implications because if this type of contract is commonplace – and we’ve been told it is – then many PhD students may feel able to challenge exploitative contracts,” she said.

“This is a really grey area of employment that universities have massively benefited from over the years,” she added.

A Sussex spokesman said those PhD students who were formerly on graduate training assistant contracts had agreed a teaching commitment of a maximum of 50 contact hours in exchange for a scholarship package worth around £25,000 a year.

“This was a contractual arrangement entered into by both parties and is common across the sector,” he said, and therefore “no back pay is due” as the contract was agreed by both parties.

However, PhD students who teach have from this year been transferred to a grant system that has no teaching requirement.

Payment to research council-funded PhD students has been made to reflect changes in the rules by Research Councils UK, which now bars a teaching requirement as a condition of receiving a scholarship, Sussex's spokesman added.

Teaching opportunities for PhD students “provide our undergraduates with access to some of the brightest young researchers on campus, and our keen research students with both income and good development opportunities for future academic careers”, the spokesman said.

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