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Kayleigh Charlton
Careers and professional development, Climate and environment, Government and politics, Work and occupational

The Union and the University of the Future

Kayleigh Charlton on why treating long-term, positive relationships between employers, employees, and the union allow us to focus on building the best possible future.

03 January 2023

The University and College Union (UCU) represents over 130,000 academics, lectures, trainers, instructors, computer staff, librarians, researchers, managers and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education, and training organisations across the UK. Despite being some of the most overworked and undervalued members of higher and further education, Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) form only a small portion of the membership. There might be a variety of reasons for this, but most commonly, people just aren’t sure what the UCU can do for them. Have you ever wondered how institutions and unions could work together to create a better, brighter university?

The UCU is so much more than a ‘service provider’ for when things go wrong. Local UCU branches build communities of like-minded people that are all fighting for a better University of the Future. What could that mean?

Agreed workload boundaries

There should be a recognised set of guidelines on workload models and workload boundaries for postgraduates, professional services staff, research-only staff, senior staff, and health educators/clinical staff. Having a set of recognised guidelines ensures that staff are not being overworked or underpaid for the realities of the workload tied to the job. Workload agreements should ‘work’ for all staff, including those with additional responsibilities. However, when required, staff should feel empowered to say ‘no’ to excessive workloads and have both local and national backing to do so.

The UCU is also committed to having a health and safety officer in every branch. This has been of particular importance in recent years with the spotlight on mental health in workplaces.

Higher wages

PGRs are notoriously underpaid and undervalued. This has been particularly evident during Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis. All PGR stipends should be in line with inflation rates and should, ideally, include employee benefits from the university. The notion of higher pay extends to all staff and speaks to issues such as the gender pay gap. Indeed, if people are doing the same job or work of equal value, they should be receiving the same or equal pay.

The UCU also works to prevent pension cuts, and you can find advice and guidance on occupational, state, and private pensions online.

Fairer contracts

There would be no casualisation in Higher and Further Education contracts. This, similarly, to higher wages, recognises that PGRs should be treated as staff, not students. Research is labour and currently we are overworked and under-supported. 46% of universities and 60% of colleges use zero-hour contracts to deliver teaching and 68% of research staff in higher education are on fixed term contracts. Casual contracts mean no employee benefits.  

In relation to teaching, all PGRs employed to undertake teaching work by the institution should be offered an employment contract and thus be treated as employees. GTA contracts should include holiday provision, paid sick leave, maternity/pararenal leave, and agreed workload boundaries.


The UCU is committed to putting equality at the heart of their activities. Most branches have an equality officer. Recently, the UCU have released statements on issues such as the EHRC interventions on trans rights, Black Lives Matter in Ukraine, and the Gender Recognition Reform in Scotland. As well as releasing statements of support, the UCU offer a range of resources and guidance on discrimination, bullying and harassment.

Greener campus – Greener curriculum

The UCU is committed to tackling human-induced climate change where it can. Together, we should be developing and working on low-carbon strategies. This might include promoting greener travel to and from campus through cycle schemes or having visible and legitimate recycling infrastructure on campus. Aside from this, we should be adopting a ‘greener curriculum,’ which ensures that students and staff have access to knowledge and resources needed to tackle climate change. A green curriculum focuses on creating a generation of people who grasp the impact of climate change, who can approach environmental issues with a solution focus and who value their role in nature.

Properly funded, publicly owned and democratic

Higher and Further Education institutions should remain funded and controlled by the public. Simply put, education should not be run for profit. This includes bringing back colleges into public ownership as well as providing the proper funding to these institutions.

The UCU has also campaigned for open, transparent, and democratic governance at all levels within colleges and universities. As PGRs we often don’t know about or understand the structures and hierarchies that exist within our universities. Having access to this knowledge or the opportunity to sit in meetings with professors as part of one team is a fantastic way to get to know your university better.

Trade unions treated as partners

Overall, we should be working on creating long-term, positive relationships between employers, employees, and the union which allow us to focus on building the best possible future. Each of the principles listed above interact in one way or another, but UCU must be treated as an equal and valued partner by the university if we are to achieve our goals for the future.

Postgraduates who are employed by their institution, for example as a teaching assistant, can join the UCU as a full member for free. Postgraduates who aren’t employed by their institution can join the UCU as a student member for free. If you are a PGR or an ECR and you are not part of the UCU, I urge you to join us in our fight for a brighter, better future.

About the author

Kayleigh Charlton is a PhD Researcher at The University of Bath and the PGR Rep for the University of Bath UCU Branch. Her research involves working with queer identified prisoners on a project about the relationship between space and identity in the women’s prison estate.