Education International
Education International

Doctoral students' status – an urgent issue for academic trade unions

published 28 March 2011 updated 11 April 2011

Improving standards of doctoral students’ employment is vital if we are to build decent conditions of work for all academic workforces and achieve the goal of good quality public higher education.

The global financial crisis has been used by many European governments as the perfect excuse to keep funding for public higher education at current levels or even to cut it back dramatically. It is also a received wisdom that the education sector is labour-cost intensive, and therefore savings on education can also mean saving on teachers’ salaries by growing of part-time employment contracts accompanied with a reduction of tenured posts.

However, lowering teaching costs can also be achieved by putting a precarious labour force out to work. Where academia is concerned, doctoral students appear to some accountants to be a cheap alternative source of labour.

In recent years there has been a steady, but alarming, increase in the number of doctoral students within OECD countries. In last decade the number of PhD-holders has grown rapidly by about 40 per cent, with doctoral programmes being treated as a part of the Bologna Process (of third cycle studies) since the Berlin Conference in 2003.

As per the Bergen Communique, doctoral programme participants are concerned as both students and early-stage researchers. Policy Statement published by EI Pan-European Structure in 2005 has stated the issue clearly: "trade unions call for the recognition of the doctorate as the first stage in an academic/research career, and the only formal requirement for promotion to higher academic positions. Young academics should be employed on doctoral research contracts and paid accordingly". Despite this, there is still no Europe-wide framework for the common regulation of a doctoral student’s status.

According to the results of a survey conducted by the European Universities’ Association among Bologna Process member countries, in 10 out of 35 countries higher education systems’ doctoral candidates have the status of students, e.g. Italy, Latvia and the UK. In only three of the examined countries are they classed as employees, e.g. Denmark and Netherlands. In the remaining 22 countries doctoral candidates have mixed status, they are neither students nor workers, e.g. Poland, Belgium and Germany.

Many obligations, no rights

As stated in the Salzburg Principles, doctoral students should be recognised as professionals. It does not matter which formal status they have, it is just crucial that they are given commensurate rights. Yet this is not the case everywhere. In many places, doctoral students are treated as people with obligations of both worker and student, without being afforded the rights of both.

Example of this in-between status of doctoral students can be seen in Poland, where the number of doctoral students is growing rapidly. In the academic year 2009-10 numbers reached 35,600 of whom 46 per cent received a scholarship. The scholarship average is 270 € without tax, health insurance or pension, in a country with a median net income of 557 €. These scholarships are awarded to doctoral students after the enrolment process, according to their position in the final ranking. They can be cancelled or delayed after each year of studies.

Doctoral students with a stipend are obliged to teach up to 90 hours per year as a form of training, without pay. Academics that are carrying out research are obliged to teach between 120 and 240 hour annually. Only PhD students without a scholarship can refuse the teaching hours.

There is an observable decrease in the number of assistants, university employees who teach and do a PhD: 28 per cent between 1996-2009. Prof. D?browa-Szefler suggests that this reality is strictly connected to the increased enrolment rate onto doctoral programmes.

However, at the same time, we see a fall in the rate of registrations for PhD title conferment procedures: from 32 per cent in 1999 to 23 per cent in 2008. This may be explained by drop-out rates, meaning that, despite the fact that more people are enrolled onto PhD programmes, fewer of them are able to finish their thesis.

Considering the graduate student as qualified for the normal labour market makes very little sense, especially in overcrowded areas like the humanities. They are only needed in the framework of low-paid jobs at university, but outside, in the labour market, there is not much use for them. Such a situation motivates Marc Bousquet to call them a ‘waste product of the higher education system’. Another scholar, Tomasz Szkudlarek, argues that ’the crowds of doctoral students at the gates of academe form a reservoir of low-paid or unpaid teaching and technical work; [who] also lower the wage pressure from those employed full time’.

Solidarity against the introduction of market mechanisms in public higher education between full and part-time academic employees and doctoral students is essential. As well as the common effort to achieve decent forms of employment for all who work in academia. This is one of the main reasons why the issue of doctoral students' status should be continually addressed by unionised academics.

By Krystian Szadkowski, Marie Curie EDUWEL Fellow at EI Research Institute

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 37, April 2011.