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Row over staff status for research students


Russell Group says becoming staff is “not in the interest” of postgraduate researchers

The UK’s top universities have been branded “out of touch” after their association came out against proposals to treat postgraduate research students as staff.

The Russell Group said that any move by national funder UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to change the legal status of postgraduates to employees would be “not in the interest” of these researchers.

The statement—made on 30 May in a submission to a national consultation on reforming postgraduate research—put the group representing 24 of the country’s research-intensive universities on a collision course with the University and College Union and postgrads who have pushed to be made staff.

Alex Kirby-Reynolds, a postgraduate research student at the University of Sheffield and the co-lead for a UCU campaign for staff status, told Research Fortnight that the Russell Group’s claims “should be taken as a transparent
attempt to avoid accountability or increased cost for universities”.

Push for pay

On the back of long-running concerns over the exploitation of postgraduate students who shoulder research and teaching responsibilities, the UCU launched its campaign in July 2021 for such students to be given the same job protections as staff formally employed by universities.

The issue has come to the fore as UKRI consults on the future of postgraduate research training as part of plans for a ‘new deal’ to improve the experience of junior researchers in the UK. UKRI has said it will consider changing the employment status of postgraduate research students.

But the Russell Group said a shift would take emphasis away from training and cost universities and funders more. It could also leave postgraduate research students “worse off financially” without major additional funding to make up for the fact that the change would make the stipends that support these researchers liable to income tax and National Insurance, the group argued.

The group did say that “more can be done” on improving working conditions, and that sick, parental and care leave for postgraduate students could be aligned with staff rights “wherever possible”.

Kirby-Reynolds said that had the Russell Group “made any serious effort to speak to [postgraduate research students, they] might have realised how out of touch most of their arguments are” and that universities were attempting to distance themselves “from having to provide even basic standards”.

The Russell Group declined to expand on its submission to UKRI, but made the case there that investments should be required to provide more support to postgraduates and improve the stipend they receive, which is currently roughly equivalent to the minimum wage for people aged 23 and over.

UKRI said it expected to publish a summary of feedback it had received on its plans and its response later this year. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight