The Postgraduate Workers’ Association

by Jamie Woodcock and Luke Evans

Postgraduate teachers face precarious working conditions, which are worsening with the changes to higher education. The PGWA formed in May 2012 to protect their interests.

First published: 21 August, 2012 | Category: Activism, Education, Employment & Welfare, Labour movement, Politics, Vision/Strategy

The Postgraduate Workers' Association (PGWA) was established on the 26 May 2012 at a meeting attended by postgraduates who teach in universities across the UK. In this article, we identify postgraduate teaching as a form of precarious labour, show how this is a barrier to collective action, and suggest how this can be overcome. It has been collectively written by two members of the PGWA and as such is not representative of the group as a whole; instead it is intended to contribute to the ongoing discussions as the PGWA develops (A statement from the PGWA and other materials can be found on the PGWA blog).

Postgraduate teaching as precarious labour

The struggle of postgraduates is taking place against the backdrop of far-reaching changes in higher education. One of these changes is the increasing tendency to push the burden of teaching onto postgraduates. This is the result of two factors. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, postgraduate labour is much cheaper. Secondly, it forms a part of the neoliberal agenda to generally drive down wages and conditions of lecturers. This is part of a process of opening up universities to the market and making them more attractive for privatisation. The attacks on lecturers’ pensions are an important component of this. This highlights the potential risks of management playing postgraduate teachers off against lecturers, using them to undermine lecturers’ attempts to fight back. There is an important difference in that many postgraduates who teach hope to continue on to lecture and so standing with lecturers can be seen as safeguarding future conditions. However this is certainly not automatic.

The nature of postgraduate teaching has meant that it often attracts the label of precarious work. The use and type of contracts is uneven, the process of gaining employment can be opaque, pay and conditions vary greatly and often do not correlate with the actual amount worked, and there can be long breaks in employment throughout the academic year.[1] It therefore fits with the general usage of the term precarious employment as it is both unstable and insecure.

Postgraduates often take on teaching work to support themselves while they are undertaking academic research. There is an element of pressure to work to improve career prospects if they want to continue working in academia, and this can be translated into postgraduates taking work without pay or with poor conditions. The precarious job for postgraduates is therefore not necessarily intended as a long-term commitment. This can create barriers to organisation: why bother to struggle in a transitory job that will not last that long? This problem exists in many other sectors: difficulties of organising in a temporary workplace where collective action is undermined by a high staff turnover.

The phenomenon itself is not new, as is indicated by the quote from a dock worker in 1882 that ‘dock labouring is at all times a precarious and uncertain mode of living.’[2] Understanding precarity as part of a dynamic process allows for a strategy to be developed that can attempt to overcome it. Precarity as a concern raises wider questions about the way labour markets discipline workers.  Precariousness is said to create flexibility in the labour process, replacing regimented, Fordist divisions of labour with short-term, collective project-based work. The rise of this style of work is said to challenge the complacency of traditional kinds of workplace negotiations because workers are now no longer forced into a hierarchical structure with an antagonistic management, but are engaged in networks of creative work; designing websites, staging performances, organising local festivals, and producing artworks. The call for a guaranteed minimum income for all is a common goal articulated by those that identify with the politics of precariousness, as this would maintain the flexible and creative ways of working without the financial insecurity.

Rather than rejecting the creative spirit associated with precarity, or the large-scale organisation of workers involved in trade unionism, what is necessary is to understand what form of organisation can strengthen workers against exploitation. Precarious conditions do not allow for greater academic freedom; if anything the associated pressures reduce it. The pursuit of future contracts limits the scope of research, something that is particularly acute with critical work. In the past tenured contracts allowed academics to pursue research free from these pressures by specifically reducing the insecurity of their employment.

The insecurity associated with precarity concretely affects our research and teaching employment, which in turn affects whether postgraduates can afford the risk of being involved in seeking a life of work within the university. A movement has to be built against the processes of casualisation. The first act is to stage the refusal. We must recognise what in the situation is wrong. This refusal then begins the process of developing the resistance. By recognising what is wrong in the situation we move closer to providing propositions for alternatives.

The development of a refusal into an alternate way of doing things can be achieved by ensuring that the methods we use for articulating and uniting our collective refusal are democratic and led from the grassroots. On every campus we need groups of PhD activists mapping the differences in remuneration and duties expected in hourly-paid work, producing activist reports that the PGWA can share and spread, naming-and-shaming instances where institutions have tried to get away with promoting unpaid labour (as PGWA activists have at both Birmingham[3] and UCL[4]), and engaging in the life of their UCU branch using the unions self-organising group principles to create recognised safe-spaces for PhDs to discuss experienced inequities and the tactics for dealing with them[5].

The nurturing of a lasting grassroots activism amongst PhD workers will be new territory for the labour movement as most broadly understood, and also, often, for campus-based activism. As with any innovation, there will be debate, contestation and the eventual resolution of questions about where our potential is best put to practice.

Our struggle must ensure it is able to build local spaces for strategising and self-education, but is must also be capable of moving through the UCU and outwards touching upon the wider questions of increased tuition fees, and the right to be a voice of dissent through action as well as word. We will therefore not only encounter the creative potential of discussion and debate within our campaigns, meetings, and structures, but will also find ourselves coming up against the disruption, demonisation and dismissiveness from our opponents. Whilst the former will lead to a flowering of possibility, the latter can act as a hall-of-mirrors refracting and misdirecting our actions from where they have the most power into chasing phantoms through labyrinths.

The story so far

The roots of the PGWA can be traced back to the student protests that erupted in 2010 and the wave of radicalisation that followed. It has formed out of a milieu of student activists who were either directly or indirectly involved in the student protests, continued studying, and are now teaching in universities.

The PGWA was not the first grouping of people to attempt building among postgraduates in universities. The New College of Resistance conference organised by the Education Activist Network (EAN) on 29 October 2011 held a meeting entitled “Postgrads and zero hour contracts – how do we fight casualization?”[6]. It brought together activists from various campuses to discuss the different contexts and possibilities for organising. Following up the initiative for action generated at the EAN conference a number of postgraduate activists, including two Student Union postgraduate officers from LSE and Goldsmiths and a rep from a UCU branch, started the process of building for a national conference.

The first concrete step was to find a local campaign and to bring it into connection with other postgrads so everyone would be able to share activist experience and organising skills. The nascent PGWA made contact with a number of postgrads organising at University of East London against an attempt by the management to enforce unpaid working practices on postgrad teachers.

The position of postgraduates who teach, both as students and as workers in universities, provides both obstacles and opportunities for organising. There are opportunities for working with established trade unions. Postgraduates can be members of both NUS (National Union of Students) and its Postgraduate Section, and UCU (University and College Union).  UCU’s Anti-Casualisation Committee provides resources and networks in order to get a campaign off the ground.  The UCU Congress 2012 voted to support a motion urging branches to engage in a national postgrad recruitment drive[7]. This conference also provided an opportunity for postgraduate activists to share their experiences of struggles in different universities.  For example, postgrad activists at Leeds had already been involved in fighting for better local pay rates, and had successfully created a locally recognised postgraduate section within the union branch as part of this. This inspired activists from the PGWA to get a motion passed through Goldsmiths UCU branch that created a local postgraduate forum, and a postgrad-led working group to lead on the recruitment drive.

The 2012 NUS Postgraduate section conference was attended by members of what would become the PGWA and other activists. A major victory was a motion which resolved to build a campaign around postgraduates who teach. It supported the NUS/UCU Postgraduate Employment Charter and called for a national survey of pay and conditions for postgraduates working in universities. It detailed the demand for the fractionalisation of postgraduate teaching staff with better terms as conditions as part of a strategy for fighting casualisation. The final part of the motion called on the NUS to support the initial PGWA conference. There were two further motions calling for support for the UCU pension campaign and the NUS national demonstration. The impact of this intervention was signalled by the election of one of the PGWA activists to the committee at the end of the conference.

The activists in the PGWA have also been publicising the issues facing postgraduates in both academic and popular press.

PhD students are vital for the future of the university and their willingness to fight will determine the future of the union. Our own experience organising as postgraduates at Goldsmiths, working within the UCU and with the NUS towards the November 30th strikes has provided us with a number of what we consider to be important lessons. We helped to organise broad mass meetings on campus that brought together staff and students to organise for the strikes. During the second half of the meetings different departmental groups met allowing staff and students to plan locally how to build for the biggest possible turn out on the day. The student occupation in the run up to the strike became a space where vigorous debates about the way forward were held. The mobilisation proved in practice the possibility of organising from the grassroots up within different unions and across activist groups. It is in this spirit that we see the PGWA moving forward: as a national network of local activist groups that operate inside the UCU and with the NUS to strengthen the struggle from below of postgraduates. Rather than leaving our demands to be taken up by regional officials we want to involve the largest number of postgraduates in fighting to improve their own conditions.

Innovations in the ways that workers organise at the grassroots level emerge out of our struggles for victory. Victories are only guaranteed by a confident and militant rank-and-file. The Clyde Workers’ Committee sounded the clarion call for the rank-and-file when they declared that:

We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of Delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.’

So where next?

The following five points are intended as a proposal for moving the PGWA forward:

1.     To organise meetings on different campuses to raise the profile of the PGWA and to initiate the building of local groups.

2.     To encourage a diversity of voices across different campuses to contribute their activist experiences through reports to the PGWA blog.

3.     To encourage local groups to map the research and teaching employment practices of their institutions where they affect postgraduates in order to create a national picture of university working life from the bottom up.

4.     To work towards a national conference hosted by the PGWA that will be based on a variety of workshop sessions organised by different local groups.

5.     To fight to embed the demands of the PGWA throughout the UCU and NUS by actively building for the UCU anti-casualisation committee day of action, the October 20th TUC demonstration, and the November 21st NUS demonstration


Jamie Woodcock is a PhD student at Goldsmiths and NUS NEC.

Luke Evans is a Phd student at Goldsmiths and UCU branch rep and activist.


All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?