Postgraduate students in Australia are suffering widespread exploitation, with some working up to 20 hours a week as unpaid lecturers or demonstrators, unions representing academics and students have claimed.
More than 115,000 students are undertaking postgraduate studies in Australian universities and almost 70,000 are enrolled in higher degree programmes, usually research-based.
In one instance, a PhD student at one university worked 18 hours a week last semester as a demonstrator but received no payment. He was told that as the students he was helping were in their third year of study they could probably assist him with his own research project.
The student said it was made clear by his supervisor that unless he co-operated, he could lose his research funding and would not get a reference. According to the unions, this situation is common on most campuses.
Frank Hambly, executive director of the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, said he would be gravely concerned if students were being exploited, especially if the work they were required to do interfered with their research or other studies.
"It has always been a source of great concern because a student stipend only lasts for a certain time and if they are not allowed to get on and do their own work it can have serious implications for their progress," Mr Hambly said.
He said he wanted to find out more about the claims that some students were being forced to work for nothing. Apart from the issue of exploitation, this raised questions concerning matters such as workers' compensation if postgraduates were acting as unpaid tutors or demonstrators.
Simon Vanderaa, president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, said that even if postgraduates were paid for teaching or demonstrating, it was usually on an hourly basis.
However, little or no regard was paid to the time spent by postgraduates in preparation, or for marking students' work and discussing issues with them outside the lecture theatre.
"Students are paid $19 (Pounds 9.50) an hour to conduct a tutorial but often no account is taken of the preparation that is needed or the fact that undergraduates drop in to see them. The institutions simply say, 'You are being employed as a casual tutor and a tutor gets $19 an hour: you did one hour, here's your $19'."
Although it was customary for PhD and most research students to undertake some type of demonstrating or teaching role, Mr Vanderaa said his council had received many complaints alleging exploitation. As a result, CAPA and the National Tertiary Education Union had agreed to conduct a survey to gauge the full extent of the problem.
Results of the postgraduates survey would be used to highlight the issue and propose solutions, Mr Vanderaa said.