PhD Students or Employees, which way should the UK go?

This discussion paper aims to facilitate consideration of an important issue around the mobility of researchers both into and out of the United Kingdom to the rest of Europe and even beyond. Over the years, NPC and other organisations in the UK have engaged in much discussion with their European counterparts as to whether PhD candidates should hold the status of employees or students. In some European countries, they are strictly employees, while in others they may have status and rights as employees, while at the same time they are regarded in their work as students. The UK is quite unique in considering PhD researchers purely as students. It is a problem for us since unless the UK takes careful action on the matter, it could significantly impede the mobility of researchers while at the same time, any significant changes could also disrupt the situation of UK researchers undertaking their PhD. There are a number of issues to consider in terms of whether status as students or employees is more beneficial.

What are the main differences between the UK and Europe?

In the UK, a vast number of home PhD students are funded by research councils or charities. They will likewise receive a grant that is not taxable and have all the benefits and discounts that other students have. The grant will cover tuition fees to the institution to whom they will be registered as a student. An employee, however, will not receive a grant, they will agree to a contract with the institution, as a research fellow would and pay taxes etc. and not be considered as a student to the outside world. Their relationship with the institution will therefore have a significant difference. Both forms of status have their advantages and disadvantages. The following table summarises some of them, although it is not exhaustive:


It can be argued that some of the benefits for workers are more useful to a PhD candidate for life investments they may make such as pensions and care for their family if they are a parent. However, the above points suggest that living costs can be reduced significantly while retaining status as a student. Making a decision between the two issues requires a compromise. Financial matters are not the only issue, can it be reasonable to consider a supervisor as an employer, who has the right to direct the students' work and withhold intellectual property? Academic freedom for PhD graduates could be severely restrained in such cases or on the other hand can employment charters be implemented to maintain the rights of researchers?

What are the implications for the UK?

NPC has no policy on this matter at the time of writing, although it will no doubt be of value to have it. There is a need to consider whether the status of student or employee is more beneficial within the UK in the long run. However, on the other side, do we see need to ease the mobility of researchers by providing a more harmonised system across Europe for Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) as they are known as in the general context. There are options that have to be explored in terms of how the UK can ease access to researchers within Europe who wish to be mobilised wherever they are required to be based. One option is to move the status of PhDs in the UK to employees, while another could be to retain the status of students but provide further necessary benefits that provide the benefits of that of an employee. Such an option would be a "halfway house" model to suit both sides.

In the future, NPC plans to debate this matter further through which it can form policy on the way forward for ESRs in the UK.