Postgraduate research students are increasingly being used as ‘slave labour’

The evolution of intellectual freedom

Postgraduate research students are increasingly being used as ‘slave labour’ to cut teaching costs at universities across the UK, a London conference heard yesterday.

They warned teaching conditions were getting dramatically worse as academic cuts bite and universities are under mounting pressure to cut costs.

PhD students – occupying the precarious first rung on the academic career ladder – are the most vulnerable group amongst teaching staff, working on short-term contracts and increasingly pressured into working for free. Ever more aspiring academics are being used as cheap substitutes for more experienced but expensive senior lecturers. Academics warned that undergraduate students being asked to pay a total of £27,000 in tuition fees for their degrees are becoming more vociferous about being taught by junior academic staff. In one incident a heated dispute arose between students and PhD teaching staff over the marking of essays.

Another PhD student recounted how he was required to supervise 13 undergraduate dissertations involving hours of daily unpaid work. And as a result of dwindling student numbers and funding cuts, a number of former polytechnics have already announced there will be no paid teaching places for PhD students at all in the coming year.

The claims were made as young academics from across the country gathered in London to launch a campaign aimed at improving working conditions for PhD students teaching at British universities. Jenny Thatcher, a 27-year-old PhD student in Migration Studies teaching at the University of East London, where PhD students are hired as hourly paid lecturers, said: “We have become main face of academia, but we don’t get any office space, decent pay or job security. And if you consider that undergraduate students are now paying 27,000 for their degrees, that is a cause for great concern, as we are unable to provide proper support.

“The situation also benefits those research students privileged enough to be able to work for free, and it disadvantages women, as many women tend to work part time because of domestic responsibilities and are often not in a position to work for free.”

Kerem Nisancioglu, 28, a postgraduate research student at the University of Sussex, said: “Generally, we are given short-term contracts, are paid at hourly rates that are in no way commensurate with the actual workload, nor are they equivalent to the same work carried out by faculty. It feels like our work is not being valued.”

Robin Burrett, of the National Union of Students and a PhD student at the London School of Economics, told the conference called to launch a campaign to improve working conditions for postgrad teaching staff, that: “PhD students engaged in teaching work are in a vulnerable position, as the institution they work for is the same institution that will give them a mark at the end of their studies.

“Universities faced with funding cuts are increasingly in competition with other universities, departments with departments and individual academics with other academics, and PhD students are bearing the brunt of the need to cut costs.”

The conference called for the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to launch an inquiry into the conditions PhD students face.

Recent research carried out by UCU estimated that over 77,000 academic teaching staff are presently working on hourly paid contracts.

This article is reproduced via ‘The Independent’ (Koss Couvee- May 27th, 2012.) 

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Essex Students Show Solidarity with Quebec

Student signing a letter expressing solidarity to the student movement in Quebec.

Students at the University of Essex have been showing their solidarity
with students in Quebec by writing letters of protest to the Canadian
High Commission in London. 50 students signed individual letters to be
sent to the High Commissioner expressing solidarity and concern at the
state repression of protests. The letters were sent en masse on Friday

Students in Quebec have been involved in months of protests against
increases in tuition fees and their own Government’s austerity
programme. Each letter had a square of red cloth attached, the symbol of
solidarity that has been adopted by those across the world who support
and are inspired by their struggle.

“It is of crucial importance to stand in solidarity with the students in
Canada who are being arrested and intimidated at the moment,” said
Petar, a first year student at Essex who helped organise the letter
writing. “We hope that groups of students across the country can do the
same, and flood the high commission with letters.”

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Berkeley in the 1960s: ‘You can’t trust anyone over thirty.’

In the 1960s, university campuses from the Sorbonne, Paris to Berkeley, CA experienced a complete transformation to become centres of revolt. The university was the place where, “The young are there together, in an overwhelming majority…Ideas spread, and meetings or demonstrations may be organised , with corresponding ease and speed.” (Segal, 1971. The Struggle Against History)

This analysis of university campuses is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. For those in the UK in late 2010, this process of critical thinking developing into frantically paced protests and demonstrations will be familiar.

As we move into the next academic term, an Autumn of resistance is on the horizon. This summer, take an hour from the sun and re-live the experience of the past. If we can learn the lessons of history, this time, we can win.

This is an award-winning documentary about the origins of the Free Speech Movement along with the beginning of the counterculture of the 1960s in Berkeley, California.

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VC Riordan bought a £675,000 home as perk

Vice Chancellor of Essex – Colin Riordan (2007-2012)

This summer after five years as Vice Chancellor of the University of Essex, Colin Riordan will sadly be leaving us. Colin successfully put Essex on the map – he oversaw the cuts to accommodation services, rent rises far above inflation and most importantly, successfully lobbied MPs to vote for £9,000 tuition fees back in December 2010. He even managed to raise fees at Essex to £9,000 after fooling the Students’ Union into thinking the fees would be raised to ‘only’ £8,000. All Essex students should give Colin an applause as he leaves our University for the services he gave.

The cuts to Education, higher fees and massive youth unemployment mean that unfortunately, we can’t collect together the money to afford Colin the leaving present he deserves.

Fortunately, Colin’s new employer, the University of Cardiff, has purchased a £675,000 home for him. Cardiff University boasted “[we] believe this asset will be a justified investment, helping support development and growth over the coming years. Cardiff’s competitors among the UK’s leading universities already have such properties for exactly this purpose.”

Despite the huge sums of money that are being removed from teaching budgets, from lecturers pensions and that students are being asked to pay in the form of higher fees, it is clear to all parties concerned that this is £675,000 well spent.

Rather than an isolated incident, Vice Chancellors are routinely given such ‘perks’ in order to draw their individual expertise, or are paid huge six-figure salaries for their employment. Malcolm Grant, Provost of University College London received salary and benefits of £376,190 whilst cleaners at the University were denied the Living wage.

It remains to be seen whether the University of Essex incoming Vice Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster of Durham University, will be given a similar perk to mark his coming into our community.

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A Request

Whilst this blog was initially created in order to inform students and staff at the University of Essex of events, meetings or protests that were happening locally I think that it is politically important that we also discuss what is happening internationally.

In Chile students have been protesting over many months against Government privatisation of the education system, and have gained international coverage through their protests, occupations and struggle. In Canada, HE students have been embroiled in a battle against tuition fees and have shown an inspiring level creativity and endurance.

We need to learn the lessons of the struggles of our fellow students if we are to be prepared for our tasks ahead.

At the NUS conference in April, delegates voted to:

1. Organise a national demonstration in the first term of 2012-13 against cuts, fees and high interest on student debt.

2. To reaffirm our support for industrial action taken by education workers.

3. To call for Universities to be places of political asylum.

(Amongst many other resolutions)

Whilst these policies have been passed, we need broad networks of students, lecturers and staff working alongside Students’ Unions all over the country to organise, for us to make this into a reality. 

This is a call for two outcomes. For more contributions to the Essex EAN blog, both of tactical discussions for our next steps, but also analysis of international struggles to inform our own. The second is to form an EAN committee which can communicate over the Summer Break in order for us to be prepared for next term.

To either contribute, or to be part of the committee please email or send a text message to 07855928749.

In solidarity.

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Quebec and the Student Strike

QUEBEC – Students in Quebec have been involved in a widespread explosion of revolt that has lasted so far for three months. At certain points as many as 175,000 have been involved in a student strike against the Charest governments proposal to raise tuition fees.

Photographs from the daily protests in Canada against rising fees

The inspiring three month uprising of students has culminated in twenty-four days of daily protests and the tactic of a student strike being used- a form of protest raised within the UK student movement, but one that never fully materialised.

In similar scenes to those seen in December 2010 in Britain and across the United States, particularly in the Occupy movement, the Police have been brutal in their attempt to crush dissent. Unfortunately, for the police and the Government, this repression has served only to harden the protests. The Occupy movement, as well as the anti-austerity movement in Europe has resulted in an anti-capitalist current within the movement begin to develop.

Today, the National Assembly is meeting to discuss Bill 78 – a law which would see students and Unions pay heavy fines for enforcing the student strike.

(From the ‘National Post’)

“The legislation provides for fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for any individual who prevents someone from entering an educational institution.

The penalties climb to between $7,000 and $35,000 for a student leader and to between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations.

Bill 78 also lays out strict regulations governing student demonstrations, including having to give eight hours notice for details such as the itinerary, the duration and the time at which they are being held.

The legislation would also pause the current academic session for striking students and have it resume in August.”

This Bill shows the desperation of the Police and the state in their attempts to put a stop to the growing movement. We should be clear, if this law passes, it will be a defeat not just for the students of Quebec, but for those across the world. If the law passes in Quebec, we can bet our governments will try the same.

Police protect City Hall along protest route

Next academic year, the NUS will hold a national demonstration against cuts to Higher and Further Education, against the newly raised fees and wider austerity. We must be the ones who generalise the experience from our Canadian, French, Greek and Spanish friends. Will the student strike be a tactic we see materialise in Britain?


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Say No to Privatisation at Essex: International Academy

Say No to Privatisation at Essex

-University plans to privatise International Academy
-Gives private provider a foothold in the University
-Gateway for future privatisation

Written by Staff and Students in Essex Education Activist Network

At the end of April an innocuous looking email went out to all staff, talking about a ‘consultation’ on the future of the International Academy. Read the details, and something more troubling emerges. The proposals in the consultation document involve handing over control of the University’s International Academy to a private company.

The International Academy provides foundation degrees for international students to at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. It helps many students to acquire the skills necessary to move on to other degrees within the university.

But apparently, based on figures that many contest, the IA is set to “fall well short of the University-wide gross surplus target of 46 per cent”. These targets already show the way in which the logic of the market has entered our university, with sections of the university competing to generate surplus. However, if the University Steering Group gets its way it won’t just be the logic of the market, but the market itself.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. This is a gateway for wider privatisation. It gives a private provider a foothold in the university. And which private company will it be?

Perhaps Apollo, who run the University of Pheonix and are involved in BPP, the UK’s first fully private university. Graduation rate at Pheonix University is 9%. Apollo were ordered to pay shareholders $280m dollars after being found guilty of “knowingly and recklessly” misleading investors.

Or Perhaps Kaplan, Apollo’s partners in BPP whose parent company is the Washington Post, and who are already involved with running the hotel on campus. Kaplan has been making inroads into British education, but staff working for them report huge class sizes, substandard teaching materials, lower standards and lower pay. Last year a group of students petitioned for Kaplan’s flagship campus in the US to be closed, claiming that “for many students, all they deliver is debt, unethical practices and misleading claims”

All the experience shows that private providers are bad for students, bad for staff, and good for only one thing: their own balance sheets.

How many other departments might find themselves part of this sort of ‘partnership’ once a private company has got its claws into the university, especially if all it takes is failing to meet the university’s arbitrary targets? We need to stop this privatisation now, and send a clear message that our university is not for sale.


  • Take part in the ‘consultation’ process. Email before 5pm 1st June and register your objection to private providers in education.
  • Send support to colleagues in the IA.
  • Don’t just take our word for it. Research companies like Kaplan and Apollo, and you’ll see the damage they do to education as a social good.
  • Get involved with the campaign to defend education. Visit and find Essex Education Activist Network on Facebook.
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