Students or staff? A research postgraduate Bread and Roses

Ben Vulliamy is the CEO of the University of York Students’ Union

In a national discussion about the status of research postgraduates, I’m seeing interesting lines being drawn about the rights, needs and expectations of research students.

UCUs campaign “PGRs as staff, not students” is an example – as is UKRI’s “New Deal for Students”.

It might be the case that talking out loud about PGR rights is an improvement on the radio silence from some other sector bodies, but I’m also concerned about the extent to which the UCU and UKRI campaigns are really articulating or hearing the voices of post graduate researchers in order to shape and steer their campaigns.

I also wonder whether limiting PGR rights to those of “staff” or “students” is a little short sighted for a group of people whose lived experience as researchers is very different to both students and staff.

Must it be an either or?

The desire to force the definition to sit in one space or the other may seem neat and tidy, easy to then codify existing rights and responsibilities.

Presumably the implication is that, once a “tribe” is chosen, PGRs will then use either the existing staff or existing student structures and forums to advocate and develop policy.

But to do that seems to ignore the distinct nature of PGRs from students and staff. I’m not saying they can’t share spaces, rights and policy – but I am saying why bake that in?

When I talk to PGRs they want to be able to choose whether to play sport, join a society, volunteer, write in the student newspaper, have a part time job in the union, vote for the officers and be advocated for in and by their students’ union – but they ALSO want to be able to get employment law advice about the fairness and equity of their GTA teaching contract terms and conditions, explore the implications of gender pay gap, take industrial action with their trade union colleagues etc.

More than that though, they talk about those precious rare spaces and structures that are designed, not around students in their generality or staff in their generality but around PGRs in the specificity. They describe wanting to be, or valuing being engaged in structures and activities within their research school that recognise them not as students or staff but as PGRs.

I think they are looking for a way of enhancing the interplay between trade union membership rights and structures, students’ union rights and structures and those structures and spaces that have been specially crafted within the postgraduate research schools or equivalent institutional structures.

PGR priorities designed to reflect their experience

I believe that when all their spaces are able to complement each other and all with the voices of PGR’s shaping and developing the agendas, there will be a fairly rapid development of a PGR rights framework.

A set of key policy focuses that are focused on PGR experience and needs in and of themselves will likely reflect on and enhance wider student and employee rights – but will also likely be tailored and fine tuned to PGR experience because of the way they will have been given proper agency to reflect on their own experience.

I anticipate that what they will come up with won’t be that complex – it will reflect similar themes to other forums but probably customised to the specific research nature:

Wellbeing comes up time and time again when speaking with researchers. The headlines are similar to what we hear elsewhere (mental health, loneliness etc) but when you explore that in more detail they talk about wanting different types of spaces and conversations. There are some activities where they want to hang out with staff, some with students and some with just PGR’s. Kudos to Student Minds for ‘The Wellbeing Thesis’ for example, that supplements the guidance and information available for all students with specific resources talking about the mental health and wellbeing of research students specifically.

Employment rights for teaching comes up over and over again – but they recognise that’s not always about the nature of academic staff policies and conditions, but more nuanced discussions around the ambiguity of their continuity of employment, about the unusual relationship they have a GTA’s and often about the huge variance of pay, terms, conditions from one institution to another never mind between GTA’s and other teaching staff. Its interesting that the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU) describes itself as ‘a labor union representing graduate students and other student employees at Harvard University. It was established in 2016 with a view that employment rights of research student workers were unique and not suitably catered for within other trade bodies or student representational activity.

On supervision, students talk about the power dynamic, the consistency of communication, the interdependence that exists between a researcher, the research and the supervisor. They commonly express the huge value and respect they have for the time and expertise of their supervisor but also that the relationship has a dependency that can make it difficult if there is a difference of opinion or expectation to navigate or to talk about respective needs and expectations with real parity. Its such a unique relationship, critical in many ways to the success of research and experience, which adds to the sensitivity required in exploring and framing it.

Amplifying their voice

In practice there are 2 recommendations for this piece, all of which I would hope would be significantly practical and uncontroversial. Firstly, let’s involve the voices of PGRs when talking about their status, rights, or their “new deal”.

Giving our students some agency seems a nominal base line to establish in order to enhance their experience and rights.

Secondly, let’s consider what a program of PGR rights might look like rather than force them into other frameworks or structures. This is not to say they should be disregarded from existing bodies of work or from explicit membership rights within students’ and trade unions but to say we should be good enough to consider PGRs individual needs and experiences as well.

In some way this feels like a call for “bread and roses” to use the phrase variously associated with both union disputes and before that the suffrage activist Helen Todd.

We can we offer PGR’s a warm welcome into the conversations and opportunities that already exist for staff and students but additionally we shouldn’t assume their individual needs match those of others – and that means developing and tailoring new conversations, activities and structures that are designed with them for their own individual needs, and complement their identities within and work with their research schools.

And while there is evidence of structures and systems in postgraduate schools institutionally starting to bring together research students, it is perhaps long overdue that nationally, systems are delivered that ensure the next “new deal” or national campaign on PGR identity can demonstrably capture and engage the PGR voice and experience.


We’re holding a policy forum on Wednesday 1st November at 2.30pm to discuss these issues: Sign up here.

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