A postgraduate tutor’s perspective: Vote “Yes” in solidarity with casualised workers

The following is from talk given at yesterday’s members’ meeting by Rowan Campbell.


  • 45% of teaching staff at Cardiff University are on insecure contracts
  • This figure may not include postgraduate tutors, who are not recognised as employees by the university
  • Postgraduate tutors are not entitled to a pension but risked losing pay during the last strike in solidarity with those who are enrolled with USS
  • PhD students are 6 times more likely to experience poor mental health than the general population

My name is Rowan Campbell and I am a PhD student and hourly-paid tutor at Cardiff Uni. I have been teaching here since 2016, and have also experienced the ‘other side’ as an undergraduate in the same department a good few years before. I joined UCU last year and felt invigorated by what we could achieve through collective action during the USS dispute, which I followed virtually while on a placement in London.

One of the things that came up during the dispute was that it wasn’t just about pensions – it felt in many ways like the final straw, and an outpouring of all the issues we have faced in HE in recent years. This is why, to me, the current ballot is so important: its remit is wider and it aims to address the vast inequalities that staff face. Steven Stanley has highlighted some of these: a £10,000 average pay gap between male and female academic staff at Cardiff; the 13% average rise in VC salaries while everyone else experiences real-term pay cuts of 17%. Job insecurity and precarity has become embedded into the HE system, as reflected in the fact that 45% of teaching staff at Cardiff are on atypical or fixed-term contracts. It is unclear, however, if this figure represents the true scale of the problem, as postgraduates who teach are not considered employees of the universities.

This is worth going into further, as not all staff are aware of this. We do not have contracts; we do not have employee rights; we are not entitled to a pension or sick pay; we are not recognised as part of the union’s bargaining unit. Despite not having rights, we still have all of the responsibilities that employees have and for all intents and purposes are employed by the university – we do not set our own hours and tax is deducted at the source, for example.

Year on year we have had to fight pay cuts that have often been introduced at the last minute and masked in different ways. Each year we wait to receive our pay tariff just before the first week of term, and then have to minutely check it against last year’s to make sure the pay is what we were told before applying to teach. And this is without even going into the issue that we are not remunerated properly for preparation and marking.

Aside from pay, we experience a general climate of confusion and insecurity in our day-to-day working life. Our teaching schedules (and sometimes even our modules) are not confirmed until the first week of term, so any long-term planning is impossible until this time – we essentially have to keep our diaries clear from late September til the winter holidays, which is problematic for those who also work other jobs. There is no protocol for if we are sick and can’t teach, and there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for any employment related issues, as HR is not the job of either the module leaders or the office staff we work with.

While not all PhD students teach, this type of environment certainly does not help our overall experience of HE. There is a mental health crisis amongst PhDs, with a recent global survey showing both moderate to severe anxiety and moderate to severe depression in around 40% of students in each case – a rate six times that of the general population. Another study in Belgium reported 51% of full-time students with relative financial security had experienced poor mental health in the previous two weeks, which led Meghan Duffy on Twitter to question how much worse these figures would be for students in other financial situations.

The prospects for us entering HE after our PhDs seems bleak, and the environment is not necessarily one many want to stay in. I personally wonder whether the sacrifices I will be expected to make are worth it – chasing short fixed-term contracts from one university to another and uprooting my life just to be able to do what I have trained for. These types of casualised and precarious working situations disproportionately affect women and people from minority backgrounds, and this undeniably will impact who is able to work in the HE sector.

I have heard that there is little energy or appetite for a dispute over pay at this time. But I would urge everyone to vote in the ballot, if not for yourself, then in solidarity with those who bear the brunt of casualised practices in HE.