Heather Alberro & the ECN Committee 20 April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world by storm, bringing life as many of us have come to know it to a virtual standstill. So many aspects of daily life that we often take for granted, from travelling to socialising with friends and loved ones, have been radically altered. The pandemic has also shined glaring light on the myriad structural inadequacies of neoliberal capitalism. Governments around the world have been forced to make WWII-level state interventions in order to help mitigate the socioeconomic blowback resulting from millions now out of work and confined to their homes. Such responses, in addition to rapid international coordination and communities around the world devising novel ways to help one another, have made it abundantly clear that it is cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid- not greed, hyper-individualism and competition- that are especially vital during times of crisis. What is clear is that the present pandemic has and likely will continue to generate profound and far-reaching impacts on myriad aspects of our lives. As the ECN committee we feel that the unique social and economic impacts of the pandemic on PhD students and early-career researchers in financially precarious positions, who have now been rendered doubly vulnerable, warrant further reflection. PhD students of modest socioeconomic means, particularly international students on visas, are disproportionately affected by the destabilizing uncertainty of precarious work amid the current global pandemic.

According to the 2018 UCU report ‘Precarious Education’, a considerable portion of university teaching is undertaken by PhD students and early-career researchers on zero-hours and similarly precarious contracts that are “blighted by anxiety, stress and material hardship” (Pg. 4). Although figures vary across institutions, the report sampled 38 universities and found that around 25% of undergraduate teaching is undertaken by hourly-paid staff, while at some pre-1992 universities the figures can be as high as 50%. Precarious staff not only face the perpetual uncertainty associated with insecure contracts that can be terminated at virtually any moment- as in a global pandemic- but also tend to be overworked and considerably underpaid in comparison to more permanent staff (UCU 2018). The UCU report further notes that many early-career researchers revealed struggles to pay for food, rent, bills and other necessities. The general picture painted of the higher education sector is of a ‘precariat’ vulnerable to any crisis – let alone one on the scale of COVID-19.

I myself as a final-year, international PhD student on a Tier 4 student visa, am experiencing the acute anxieties and uncertainties surrounding precarious work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. At one of the UK universities which employed me as a part-time associate tutor, it was decided to terminate ‘non-essential’ contracts. This occurred despite the recent UCU strikes across numerous higher education institutions in the UK protesting precisely this sort of treatment of precarious staff. As someone of modest means on a student visa - already a financially-challenged situation due to limited working hours and visa costs - this move was highly impactful. Although I was on a scholarship throughout the first three years of my PhD, nearly half of the funds were paid back to my university in order to cover the additional £8,000 in international student fees not covered by my bursary. Without the extra income from teaching and marking, I would have scarcely been able to afford rent, bills, or a decent quality of life, even considering Nottingham’s comparatively low cost of living. This university’s decision to terminate temporary contracts has now left me without a vital safety net for getting through the Summer months while I search for permanent employment. With recruitment on hold, this is an even more difficult position to find myself and, bereft of a crucial source of income, I may soon be forced to return to my home country, leaving behind friends, colleagues, and the wonderful life that I’ve forged in the UK over the last five years.

Many universities across the UK including St. Andrews, Bath, and my own institution, Nottingham Trent, have taken commendable steps to support their precarious staff through these difficult times, honouring contracted hours and assisting transitions to online teaching. Our own research shows that most universities will, likewise, continue to pay hourly-paid staff but, in a fast-moving environment, we need universities to maintain a firm commitment. While there might be short-term savings to cutting staff loose, risking losses of global research talent will be far more damaging to the future of UK HE.

Of course, these are not issues that universities alone can solve, moulded as they are by wider structural and macroeconomic forces. However, as a representative body of early-career researchers, we urge universities to do everything in their power to support the most vulnerable in their communities - at the very minimum, honouring contracted hours. It is only through such collective efforts that we will be able to effectively and ethically navigate the troubled terrain ahead.