So far, the debate on the increase in tuition fees and cuts in Higher Education has focused mainly on the consequences for undergraduate students. We can all imagine the impact on undergraduates of being saddled with a debt that even the government admits most will not pay back, even over 30 years. However, the government’s vandal measures will have a knock-on effect far beyond that. We believe that the specific problems which will be faced by research students highlight the broader impact of cuts on the way that universities will (or won’t) work in future. For research students, the government’s attack on public universities will bring about a growth in tuition fees and an increase in job insecurity and labour casualization, and will make it virtually impossible to find a job in academia. This is the result of an ideological – not a pragmatic – stance, which views education as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than a citizen’s right. We must unite and challenge this reduction of education to a marketable commodity. Let’s reassert the public, communal and social significance of our activity as free-thinking researchers! In the words of John Dewey: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Fees. At the moment, fees for postgraduate students are uncapped. Nevertheless, fees for PhD students are set at the same level almost everywhere, on the basis of the recommendations of the Research Councils. This means that British and EU research students are generally asked to pay some £3,300 a year, while fees for non-EU students can be around £12-15,000 a year. Notably, this amount more-or-less matches the fees set for undergraduate courses. It is very likely that an increase in the latter will result in an increase for postgraduate students as well. Furthermore, graduate fees will doubtless be further increased to soften the blow of the near-total loss of funding for all but a few areas of research. PhD students are a valuable resource to university departments, often contributing actively to the research community by publishing articles, presenting papers, doing research for their universities, and supporting full-time staff. The importance of research students to their host institutions is demonstrated by the fact that the number of successful research students and studentships awarded was one of the assessment criteria in the Research Assessment Exercise 2008. This reflected the fact that research students were a source of external funding, as well as providing income through fees. The economic value of PhD students to their university has led to pressure to take on ever-increasing numbers of doctoral researchers, with the result that the quality of provision suffers. Currently, postgraduate fees cover very little tuition, as the nature of PhDs means that doctoral students – particularly in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – tend to study alone. Fees therefore cover supervision from an established academic and access to university facilities. While many supervisors work hard to ensure that their students get all the support they need, others have been pressured to take on more students than they are able to accommodate. This looks set to go from bad to worse as universities look for ways to cover the shortfall left by the funding cuts. In the very near future, students will be graduating from their first degree with almost £30,000 of debt from fees alone. The prospect of that debt more than doubling will deter all but a tiny minority from postgraduate study. As a result, academia will once again become an elitist bastion of privilege, inaccessible to all but the select few. This is a retrograde step that stifles aspiration and thwarts social mobility.
Labour casualization. Many PhD students are already employed as cheap labour, working as teaching assistants or sessional lecturers in their departments. Research students can be easily employed as low-cost replacements for full-time lecturers: a phenomenon that is already widespread in the United States. We have to be aware that in the coming years this situation will worsen as a result of the cuts. Universities will see in research students “throwaway” academics to employ temporarily in undergraduate teaching and then to get rid of once they complete their doctoral studies. It is true that teaching experience might be beneficial for research students in the long term; however, this is true only as long as there are work opportunities around. If teaching done by PhD students becomes a way to avoid recruiting lecturers, it is detrimental to PhD students themselves, as it substantially hinders their chance of getting a job after completing their PhDs. In general terms, lecturers working on a sessional/part-time basis have less protection, fewer rights and less stability than people working on full-time contracts. We need to make these linkages between job opportunities and teaching by research students very clear, so that we do not ourselves become instruments of university managements in their dirty battle to minimize the cost of labour.
Job opportunities. The 40% cut in university spending cannot but result in job redundancies all across the country. Entire departments and institutions will default and be forced to close down. According to the University and College Union, some 49 of England’s 130 universities are at risk of closing or being forced to merge as a result of the cuts. In addition, we already know that from 2012, UK universities will accept some 10,000 fewer students than in the past. This crisis will hit particularly those working in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, areas that will experience a 100% cut in State support for teaching. As a result, many mid-career academics will be made redundant and forced to reapply for lower level positions. This will result in a “waterfall effect”, squeezing young researchers out of academia. At the moment, it seems that many of us have not yet realized the scope and implications of these measures. To state it very loudly and clearly: for researchers at an early stage of their career, it will be virtually impossible to get a job in academia in the coming years. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you think you are, these cuts will affect everyone in HE – undergraduates, postgraduates and staff members. We must stop thinking that we can get through this thanks to individual skill or verve. The real struggle is not an individual competition to stand out among other researchers, but a collective struggle to defend publicly-funded universities and freedom of research. We are a generation of young researchers with no future ahead of us, if the government’s plans are implemented. If we really believe that what we are doing is worthwhile – not only in personal or economic, but also and mainly in societal terms – we have to say it now, and we have to say it loud.
In addition, these measures are very likely to discourage overseas students from embarking on research degrees in the United Kingdom. This goes against the recommendations made to the government by the independent report “One step beyond: making the most of postgraduate education”, which stressed that, “As other countries invest heavily in their own postgraduate provision, the UK will need to work hard to maintain its competitive advantage. This will mean doing more to strengthen and promote UK postgraduate education on an international stage and to attract the very best students from around the world.” It would be pleonastic to point out that this ambitious goal cannot be met by reducing funding to higher education and cutting employment prospects for UK-based research students.
Although the focus here is on research students, we explicitly refuse a corporatist approach to the problems facing academia. On the contrary, we consider the aforementioned issues to be part of a wider attack on people’s rights and the welfare state in Britain. This government is putting forward an ideological view of society in which private profit is the normative principle. This implies the criminalization of all those groups – such as unemployed or disabled people – whose very existence debunks the myth that a profit-led society is the most beneficial to its members. For academics, this also implies that in the future the freedom of research will be under threat, and entire “non-profitable” research areas will be shut. “Priorities” for research funding will be set by the Research Councils according to apparently neutral, economic – but actually ideological – criteria. Many of us will be easily portrayed as nothing more than idle scroungers, as a burden for society. Thus, we firmly believe that PhD students should take part in the general mobilization against government cuts, rather than isolating themselves. More specifically, we invite everyone to take part in the next student protest, which is supported by Unite and GMB and will take place on 29 January, and in the national March for the Alternative called by the Trades Union Congress on 26 March.
If they say cut back, research students say: fight back!
(this text has been written collectively by a group of research students involved in the campaign Never Send to Know for Whom the Bell Tolls. Phds Unite Against the Cuts!
It has to be treated under a Creative Common license BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Categories: Higher Education