A third of postgrads teaching in UK universities are getting paid less than the minimum wage. That’s the headline finding of a survey of postgrads’ pay rates by the National Union of Students (NUS). Currently, the minimum wage for employees over 21 is £6.19 per hour.

These surprising findings come from a survey of the working conditions of 1500 postgrads. But before postgrads around the nation break out the placards and prepare to form pickets to support their woefully underpaid and undervalued peers, an important caveat should be noted: it is postgrads’ estimates of the ‘unpaid’ hours they work, such as preparation time and marking, that drag down their hourly rate. On average, the hourly rate for postgrads is £19.95. But if all the extra work they do as part of their job is taken into consideration, this falls to just £10.39.

This finding was for all postgrads, in the humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Unfortunately there isn’t a breakdown of the third who are paid less than the minimum wage by subject, so we don’t know how chemistry postgrads fare or even what proportion in the sciences are getting less than £6.19 per hour for their graft. What would be really interesting is seeing which universities were the most generous and which were the tightest. Unfortunately, the NUS has decided to spare institutions’ blushes and hasn’t named and shamed! However, there is some breakdown on some topics between STEM and non-STEM subjects.

Worryingly, the survey found that postgrads teaching in STEM subjects were much less likely to have their working conditions formalised in a contract. Overall, the study found that 31% of teaching postgrads didn’t have a contract, but this rose to 54% for those who taught STEM subjects. The survey also found that postgrads were earning less than their non-STEM counterparts. Before taking account of unpaid hours, STEM postgrads are getting around £15 per hour, while humanities postgrads are getting about £23 per hour. What should also be a concern is that a fifth of postgrads receive no training before they start teaching. More worrying still is that postgrads teaching in STEM disciplines were less likely to receive training than those in the humanities.

Clearly this situation is less than ideal. The NUS report makes a number of recommendations including that unions and student bodies get organised and press university departments for better working conditions. What would concern me most if I was in the shoes of some of these postgrads is the lack of a contract. It seems as if universities are treating the work postgrads do as a bit of a favour to them, rather than a serious job that should have well defined working conditions. If something should happen it leaves the postgrad on a sticky wicket as they’ve no clue what they’re expected to deliver and what the university’s obligations to them are. They lack the most basic protections that a contract provides. I hope that the universities and unions can get their act together soon to hammer out some sort of action plan to tackle this problem.

Patrick Walter
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