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Should PhD students be classed as employees?

by onkar

PhD students work alongside university employed researchers but do not necessarily have the same employment rights

Queen Mary University of London wants to change the status of its PhD students to that of employees. A current and a former PhD student argue for and against this change.

Against employee status

Tom Livermore, PhD Student at University College London, says:

While I recognise that there are advantages associated with employment, I believe that remaining a student provides significant benefits of its own and better reflects the training element of a doctorate.

The most common concern of my peers was what might happen to our pay. At present, our stipends are exempt from tax, making our reasonable, but not extravagant, earnings more comparable with other graduate salaries. Losing our student status would mean either an effective pay cut through taxation, or perhaps a compensatory increase in our funding. In this case training a PhD candidate would become more expensive; potentially meaning funding bodies would be able to support fewer PhDs, not a desirable outcome to my mind.

Aside from these more personal concerns, the loss of student status could also affect the ability of international PhD candidates to train at UK universities. Currently, PhD students are outside net migration figures and those not from the European Economic Area (EEA) are eligible for Tier 4 student visas. Becoming an employee could make it harder for non-EEA PhD scientists to come to the UK. British science benefits hugely from its international culture, it would be a shame if this was jeopardised.

Finally, I believe that a PhD is a scientific training that can be applied to any number of careers, including, but not limited to, academia. Rebranding PhD students as early-career researchers risks putting off those who don’t want to be academics and may want to apply their experience elsewhere, like in industry for example.

The benefits of remaining a student outweigh those associated with employment. If by becoming employees we risk reducing access to PhD training through fewer available places, visa restrictions or simply putting off those not destined for academia, then I fail to see the advantage.

For employee status

Jamie Gallagher, postdoc and public engagement officer at the University of Glasgow, says:

Doing a PhD looks and feels like employment, until something goes wrong. Imagine signing up to work 9–5 for four years on a fixed income but not having any legal rights to maternity/paternity leave, pensions or even sick leave. This happens routinely as this is the current situation for PhD students.

I spent four years working over 40 hours a week in a lab. I turned up every day, I wrote papers, I did experiments, I had duties and responsibilities – except I wasn’t “working” I was “studying”. That distinction is significant. I took home £1,150 a month, about the same as an administrative assistant, but I didn’t pay tax. In exchange for not paying tax on the few thousand earned above the tax free income allowance I handed over my employment rights.

During my PhD I tried to rent a flat and was told they didn’t accept students (despite being 24 with a four-year paid contract). When I tried to buy a flat I was told I didn’t have an income. Worse still, had I decided to have or adopt a baby I would have been left at the mercy of my university as to my entitlements. In the majority of cases the funders of PhD studentships recommend that PhD students are treated as employees in issues such as maternity/paternity leave, but “recommend” leaves wiggle room. “Recommend” is a get out of jail free card.

A few years ago during an event at the Royal Academy of Engineering, a woman who’d had a baby during her PhD asked the then minister for universities and science David Willetts about the protection afforded PhD students in this scenario. His answer was, in effect, that you can’t have your cake and eat it. He pointed out that as PhD students are given the generous dispensation of not paying any tax they cannot expect to get all the benefits associated with tax-paying jobs.

Some may worry that being given employment status would lead to there being fewer PhD positions available. This is based on the argument that the research councils would be forced to inflate each stipend to offset the tax deducted resulting in fewer being available. This argument has been used against almost every progressive step in employment rights. If this is a genuine concern, some of the tax income raised could be reinvested back in the research councils.

If a PhD student can write papers, present their data and work alongside academic staff, it is time to acknowledge their work as work.


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