Partly for my own reference, but also because it might be of interest to others.
My first paid work was when I was 15/16. It was in a boarding kennels and cattery, and mainly involved picking up a lot of animal shit. I was paid approximately £2.50 an hour; however, I was in no position to bargain as there were kids from the village who would do it all for free because it was working with cute fluffy animals. Perhaps they thought it was the Blue Cross rather than a business. I was of the opinion that as it was a profit-making business, I was not going to allow my badly paid labour to contribute to their profits and I wasn’t going to pressured into working for even less – or no – pay.
I’m reminded of these early lessons in workplace economics when it comes to postgraduate labour. As early career researchers, we are preparing to enter a fiercely competitive struggle for a limited number of jobs. Having teaching experience is incredibly important; there’s the fear that others will have done more than you, have more teaching experience than you. There are usually more postgraduates hoping for teaching work than there are places for postgraduate tutors; if you turn it down because of poor pay or lack of support then no one will miss you – there are tens of others who won’t complain and, indeed, will work for even less. We often work in the same department as that will examine us. We may work on a module our supervisor convenes. We may benefit from a scholarship that has (unspecified amounts of) teaching attached to it. If we’re offered teaching work, there’s pressure to take it.
Working for low pay means that many postgraduates simply can’t afford to teach, thus affecting their long-term job prospects. We may be used, unwillingly or unwittingly, to avoid employing full-time staff. Postgraduate teaching work is situated within different, competing pressures and interests. It can be a really complex situation, and all too often there aren’t formal structures for support and representation. Students have the Students’ Union; non-postgraduate staff have their unions. We seem to be positioned awkwardly inbetween the two.
For the most part, I’ve found my experience as a postgraduate tutor rewarding and I hope it will stand me in good stead. However, I’m also aware of my sometimes precarious position, even though my department does a lot of things right. Other postgraduate tutors have it much worse; I’ve been horrified by some of the things my friends in other universities have reported.
It’s important that the complexities of our workplace conditions are scrutinised. I’m not sure if the Postgraduate Workers’ Association’s list of things postgraduate workers should be entitled to are achievable (holiday pay? sick pay? I don’t know whether to laugh or weep) but I hope this is a step towards doing that.