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Uniting Against Academic Casualisation: A Call for Solidarity and Action

In academia, where knowledge production is often celebrated while the labour that creates it is invisibilised, there exists a reality that often goes unnoticed—the precarity of post-graduate researchers (PGRs). As voices behind groundbreaking research and the backbone of undergraduate education, PGRs play a vital role in the academic ecosystem. Yet, they often find themselves navigating a landscape of uncertainty, battling against casualisation and inadequate working conditions.

At a recent Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM), convened by the anti-casualisation officers and PGR negotiators, a striking reality was made clear. Tom Cowin, one of our PGR officers, highlighted the ongoing struggle against casualisation shedding light on a year of arduous negotiations with our university regarding the terms and conditions of employment for Sussex DTs. Despite some victories, such as the uplifting of demonstrators to Grade 6, the road ahead remains fraught with challenges.

One glaring issue that demands immediate attention is the disparity between investment in senior management and the treatment of PGRs. The university, as revealed in the EGM, has earmarked substantial funds  for creating a new layer of senior management, while dragging their feet on a pay rise for DTs, who form the most vulnerable segment of the academic community who often perform the majority of UG teaching on large modules. DTs are often the most direct link some students have to the university, particularly when navigating the university system including accessing vital pastoral care. This glaring discrepancy underscores a fundamental injustice - one that can’t be ignored.

This also comes on the back of months of negotiations delays. In August 2023, the university unilaterally decided that they would no longer meet our PGR negotiators face-to-face, and those negotiators have now been waiting for a response to a proposed workload model and pay since September 2023. We were told they would have an offer at the end of January after months of correspondence and have received, this week, word there will be an offer by Friday 9 February. Throughout this process university management refused to meet PGR negotiators in face-to-face meetings after August 2023 and conducted negotiations via intermediaries. 

“It’s clear that there is a different standard placed on negotiation practices for PGR vs. faculty negotiators.” 

However, amid the challenges there is some hope - a call for solidarity and collective action. Across various academic institutions, from Cambridge to Newcastle, PGRs have successfully secured significant victories through organised efforts. The message is clear: united we stand, divided we fall.

As we move into another new term characterised by overwork and precarity, it is imperative that we come together as one union, from PGR to Professor, to demand fair treatment and recognition of the invaluable contributions made by PGRs. While there may be obstacles ahead, with collective action, we have the power to affect meaningful change.

We must harness our collective strength and build momentum as we head into the spring term. From raising awareness to mobilising for action, all our members have a role to play in reshaping the realities faced by PGRs and DTs. This display of poor conduct when addressing our most precarious fixed-term members, when the solutions are most affordable, bodes particularly poorly for our upcoming pay review [faculty negotiations]. Whether you are a PGR, a supervisor, or a convenor, this affects all members.

We are asking for two actions: 

  1. Speak up. Your voices are the driving force behind our advocacy efforts. To supervisors and convenors, we implore you to stand in solidarity with PGRs, disseminate information about this ongoing struggle to your DTs and encourage them to participate in campaigning efforts, raise this issue with your department heads, heads of school, include this in department meetings and join us at an all members’ meeting on 1 March.

  1. Drop-in. The branch has set up a monthly PGRs meeting on the last Thursday of every month. The next meeting is in the Meeting House on Thursday 29 February, from 4pm, followed by a PGR social, with food and drinks provided. This will be a chance to network, strategise and also to discuss the new offer ahead of the all members’ meeting on Friday 1 March. We encourage members to join our PGR chat

We must dismantle the structures of casualisation and poor working conditions for PGRs and pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive academic environment.

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