At the ordinary general meeting on the 26th February 2005, one of the main items of debate was the issue over whether to keep PhD candidates in the UK as students or change to employees, following pressure from European level activity. There has been a lot of concern in terms of the Bologna Process and the European Commission's move to expand human resources and mobility across Europe so that all researchers can research wherever they need to without any problems of having unequal status in different countries. Recognition of mobility is important where by in some countries, a PhD candidate may be an employee of their institution, and if they were to move for part or all of their time to the UK and find they were a student, this could have complications in terms of how easily they can continue their research.
Changing the status of PhD candidates in the UK from students to employees is no straight forward option. Were this to happen, it would have implications on a number of factors including intellectual property rights, potential domination from the supervisor as an employer, no longer exemption from tax, discounts and a number of other benefits that students are entitled to. Further to this there would be implications in terms of bringing internationals into the UK as employees. These are just a few of the concerns that NPC has over the issue of changing to employee status.
Retaining the status of student does also have a compromise. Employee status can bring benefits in terms of pension contributions, respect for being workers and contributing original research as well as more opportunity for professional recognition. The list can continue, although despite this NPC strongly feels that the benefits as a student including finance, academic freedom and a number of opportunities as a student outweigh that of being an employee. At present, it is possible to earn extra income of over £4,000 on top of a research council stipend with teaching duties and other work where as more tax would be charged on teaching duties undertaken if employee status was retained. National Insurance pension contributions are not made, however, which the student has to pay back voluntarily either during or after their doctorate adding up to about £900. Questions are also raised as to what it means if the supervisor becomes an employer and whether that will increase their level of control to the disadvantage of the PhD. Countless other opportunities exist to save money, or have an extraordinary life as a student, which NPC feels are worth still having available.
Within government, research councils and other higher education bodies there is the sense that retaining the status of students is desirable and that this interest will be represented to the rest of Europe. NPC also has to represent this to our European counterpart, Eurodoc, www.eurodoc.net where a number of other member countries, contrary to the UK, support the move to employee status. Eurodoc as the European council for early stage researchers, or PhD candidates, is keen to urge harmonised labour conditions across Europe to facilitate effective mobility to any country. To do this, many believe causing each country to have the status of employees is necessary.
Although NPC does not support the position of employee status, it is keen to work with Eurodoc, particularly with the labour conditions workgroup and identify how labour conditions are different across Europe and come to a consensus on standards and/or good practice for labour conditions. In this respect, NPC is keen to ensure that changes are made within the UK to provide appropriate labour conditions that are available to PhD candidates elsewhere so that researchers coming into the UK are given appropriate privileges. Appropriate labour conditions include their treatment and regard by academic institutions as respected workers, not just students like any other. Further to this student representative bodies will have to wake up to the fact that PhD students are no ordinary student and support needs to be extended out to them exclusively to provide them with what they require far beyond what is currently provided. The question then to answer is, will registering PhD candidates as students have implications on what labour conditions they expect? This is an unanswered question that NPC is anxious to find out so that such evidence can be brought back to the 2005 annual general meeting for review of policy.