The following report has been written by PhD student Ellie Munro in support of the BUCU open letter calling for protections for casualised staff and postgraduate students and the national open letter calling for all casualised staff to be given guaranteed employment. Please sign and share these letters as widely as you can:
BUCU open letter & demands: https://forms.gle/F6dttuFSC3CUFHcE8
One of the many reasons for doing a PhD is to kick start a career in higher education. The approach of the University of Birmingham during this crisis, and other universities across the UK, risks closing off that career before it has even started.
I am a PhD student in the College of Social Sciences, currently in my third year. In theory, right now I’m analysing a substantial block of data, starting to write up findings, and preparing to do my final bit of data capture over the next few months. In practice, I’m paralysed. I had a plan to finish about four months into my unfunded fourth year, stretching out savings and piecemeal work from temporary contracts. That is out the window. I cannot access the data I need to collect. Nor can I access the specialist texts or the physical archival material I need. My laptop is too low-spec to run the software I use smoothly and reliably. Oh, and the global pandemic that’s going on outside has separated me from my friends, partner, family and support systems I rely on, compounding my depression while taking away the things that help me fight it.
And I am one of the lucky ones. Right now I have data to work with. I actually have a UKRI stipend and I am still within the funded period. While I am isolated, I do not have dependents to care for. I do actually have some savings, although they will not stretch far.
Colleagues I speak to through social media and whatsapp groups – largely the only places where we find words of comfort and solidarity – are having to drastically change their fieldwork plans, or completely rethink their research. Disabled students and those with health conditions are having to navigate care and support in an even more creaking system than usual. Those with caring responsibilities, including those caring for children, older relatives and other vulnerable friends and family members, are seeing these responsibilities increase drastically, as other forms of support are no longer available. Those who self-fund are losing the other jobs that sustain them, and yet are still having to pay University fees. Those in their fourth year face the prospect of having to make what finance they have available last even longer, with diminishing hope of future employment. And yet the University of Birmingham insists that postgraduate researchers can continue with “business as usual”.
The University – along with funders and other institutions – needs to step up. We cannot do “business as usual”, and neither can we continue with the uncertainty and insecurity of the current system. The impact of this crisis will be felt most keenly by disabled students and those with existing health conditions, by those with caring responsibilities and by those who do not have access to adequate alternative financial support. If we are to maintain any pretence of fighting inequality in higher education, we cannot leave these researchers, and their vital research, behind.
By Ellie Munro,
PhD student, School of Social Policy