The article reflects on our use of surveys about working conditions, in two contexts: at a national level in the UK, and at a local academic institution, Goldsmiths College, which is part of the University of London. Our starting point was the belief that surveys inspired by the concept of workers’ inquiry can play an important role in organising efforts, and wanted to share our experience with others, partly so others can learn from our successes and mistakes, but also to help foster the spirit of inquiry that we think is vital for moving forward. We wrote this article with an awareness that workers in many other universities have used surveys in a similar way to us, and we mention some of these other cases in the article.


In today’s academic workforce, one of the most important distinctions is between staff employed on permanent contracts and ‘casual’ staff employed on fixed-term contracts, usually part-time and often hourly-paid. We began our organising efforts at Goldsmiths as casual teaching staff. One of us was employed as an hourly-paid teacher, the other as a fixed-term, part-time (0.5 Full Time Equivalent) lecturer. While there are significant differences between these two casual teaching roles, it is beyond the scope of this article to go into these. Broadly-speaking, we began our organising efforts with a focus on the similarities between working conditions faced by different casual teaching staff. In Goldsmiths, as in other universities, these similarities included large pay differentials between permanent and casual staff, increasingly insecure contracts (or no contracts at all in some cases), and an apparent increase in casualisation in various other ways. In our view, casualisation of teaching roles is clearly a problem for those working in such roles, but should also be a concern for permanent staff and students, as it affects them too. As we have explained elsewhere, it is a problem that affects all of us.

The article is divided into three main sections. The first section discusses organising work at a national level that began with the formation of the PGWA (Postgraduate Workers Association) and led to a national survey of the working conditions of postgraduates who teach by the National Union of Students (NUS). The second section discusses a survey of the working conditions of casual academic staff and organising attempts at Goldsmiths. The third section reflects on the lessons we learned from these efforts.

The National Survey

The Postgraduate Workers’ Association (PGWA) was established on the 26 May 2012 at a meeting attended by postgraduates who teach in universities across the UK. Although we also participated in the establishment of the PGWA, for the purposes of this article, we limit our discussion to the links between the PGWA, the NUS survey, and later organising efforts at Goldsmiths. A brief analysis of the PGWA by two members can be found here.

An early outcome of establishing the PGWA was that bringing together casual staff from different institutions showed the discrepancies in pay and conditions between different universities, and highlighted how little knowledge we had of the overall situation. We realised that targeting ‘postgraduate workers’ (as opposed to ‘casual academic staff’) in our organising efforts meant we could take advantage of the fact that in the UK, PhD students who teach are in the unusual position of being eligible for membership of an opt-out students’ union (the NUS) and an opt-in trade union (the University and College Union), both of which are organisations recognised both by university management and the UK government as legitimately representing certain aspects of their relationship with the university (see the final section of this article for further discussion of this point). This provided a variety of different ways to contact PhD students who teach, along with the potential to access a broader network.

Over 600 students’ unions across the UK are affiliated to the NUS. Through election to positions on the NUS National Executive Council – as well as the election of an activist to the postgraduate research representative place – we were able to utilise the resources of NUS to organise a national survey into the conditions of postgraduates who teach. The report was based on a survey of almost 1500 postgraduate teachers about their pay and working conditions. The headline news was that a ‘third of postgraduate students who teach earn less than the minimum wage.’ Another major cause for concern was that around a third of those surveyed received no employment contract for their teaching. As the NUS Vice-President for Higher Education said at the time:

This report reveals that much of the hard work of postgraduates is woefully undervalued and underpaid by their institutions. There are far too many cases of postgraduates working long hours without the training and support they need, and being paid for only a small portion of their work . . . If a temp in an office or a labourer on a building site were working ten hour shifts but only getting paid for five, we’d call it exploitation. Unpaid or underpaid labour is unfair and exploitative and we must work with the sector to stamp it out.

While this sentiment is positive, we recognised there would be serious problems with relying on the NUS. Firstly, NUS is not a trade union, which makes it practically difficult for the organisation to do anything other than lobby from above for piecemeal reform at work. Secondly, the casualisation of academic employment in UK universities is not only an issue faced by PhD students, but is also faced by postdoctoral workers and other hourly paid staff who cannot be members of NUS because they are not students. Thirdly, at the time we conducted the survey it had often seemed as if the strategy of NUS has on the whole been was dictated by student leaders who are careerist politicians- in- waiting, resulting in calls for a graduate tax or demonstrations ending up in muddy parks in South London. Malia Bouattia’s election to NUS president may have signalled a more radical shift in more recent years, but the principal strategy of the organisation, especially in regard to postgrad workers, has not.

The results of the national survey provided a basis for organising meetings at universities to talk about their implications. The survey was able to give a general picture but was less clear on the specifics of individual institutions. Such meetings provided the starting point for local campaigns, which then inevitably required local investigations to clarify the situation at the particular institution where the meeting took place. One such meeting provided the starting point for our organising efforts at Goldsmiths.


The start of our project at Goldsmiths began with a realisation that we did not know much about the institution overall. We began by holding a meeting to discuss the findings of the NUS survey, which brought together a number of PhD students and hourly paid staff from different departments. During the discussion, those present decided to launch our own survey at Goldsmiths.

There was a lot of discussion about what the survey would involve, how it could be done, and crucially why it should be done. A large proportion of our survey’s designers and target population were either studying for PhDs in social science or had already completed PhDs in social science. One benefit of our shared social science background was a high level of engagement with the survey’s methodology, but this brought risks, too: within our discussions we sometimes felt ourselves slipping towards treating the survey as a purely academic research exercise, missing the point that this was first and foremost an organisational project.

The survey was intended as the first step in an ongoing process. We hoped that the survey and its results would encourage more casual staff to think critically about their working conditions, build a clearer picture of the academic employment situation at Goldsmiths, and contribute to workplace organising efforts. In this sense, while the data produced by the survey was important, the key aim was to meet and engage more workers.

We drafted a set of questions for the survey during one of our organising meetings, forwarding the questions to our organising list to get additional questions and wider participation in the process. We prepared the survey in an online format that meant we could develop it iteratively, adding new questions during the process. We decided to include a final question that made it possible for someone completing the survey to suggest issues or questions we had not covered. This enabled us to repair an editing mistake we missed early on - which was a relief! - as well as being able to focus on emerging issues as the survey went on.

The inspiration for the survey came from the approach of workers’ inquiry, and our attempt was one step towards the lofty aim of simultaneously co-producing knowledge and organising. The survey made sense in our context. An online survey provided a cost-effective way to host the questions and collect the data. However, an online survey on its own is useless. Sending out blanket emails can only go so far, and often get lost within the deluge of messages received every day. We produced flyers with a brief description of the campaign and a QR code linking to the survey. This physical “materialisation” of the online survey was a vital part of getting the survey and the issue on people’s radar, along with using the survey as part of our organising efforts. We handed out the flyers across the whole campus, with a specific focus on visiting staff common rooms and PhD computer labs within departments. By knocking on doors and discussing the project we were able to engage with a large number of people we had not met before – and who would probably not have read the emails we sent.

We were in a relatively unique position of having a local University and College Union (UCU) branch that was supportive of the campaign, providing resources and contacts. There was an elected position on the branch executive specifically for representation of casual (part time and hourly paid) staff, which certainly helped raise the profile of the campaign. Despite this, we chose to meet separately from the UCU branch, instead reporting back what we were doing after our own meetings.

In early 2013, national-level UCU organisers – through the UCU’s Anti-Casualisation Committee – called a national day of action against casualisation. Local branches in academic institutions across the country took the initiative in producing materials and activities for the day. At Goldsmiths – which is, after all, mainly an arts college – we built an iceberg to symbolise how much casual work is hidden below the metaphorical waterline, and set up a stall outside the library to promote the campaign. In this way we brought our campaign to the attention of members of staff and students we hadn’t previously been in contact with, and a number of students offered to take leaflets and pass them on to their lecturers and seminar tutors. At the next day of action, in 2014, we targeted management much more clearly. We built a display which showed the salary of the Warden at that time (£225,000 – it is now much higher!), and explained how “to earn the same wage, a GT (graduate tutor) would have to teach 112.5 seminars per week, per year.”

The more visible actions helped to collect more responses to the survey, along with recruiting more workers to the campaign. Once we felt we had enough data, we started hosting meetings in each department – styled as “what are your conditions like compared to elsewhere.” We found major discrepancies in what was paid, rates of pay, and other conditions. These provided a way to identify points to campaign on: if one department paid more, why not all of them? The survey also identified the amount of unpaid work that was being done by hourly paid workers – something we all knew but had not previously been able to quantify. These meetings continued the process of generating data useful for organising efforts, creating a network of workers and solidifying organising demands.

Reflection on the process

The survey was not an easy project. We encountered problems with getting people to fill it out - which was of course no surprise to social science PhD students. The data that the survey produced was useful, highlighting a number of concerns that we were aware of and some that we were not. For example, a few respondents explained that the casual contracts created difficulties in claiming family tax credits, something we had not come across before. We were able to raise this through the union and resolve it rapidly, providing a quick win that increased the income of some workers, without the university actually paying any more. Undoubtedly the most important result from the survey was coming into contact with casual workers that we would not otherwise have met. The survey gave us a reason to wander around the university and talk to people about their work. The networks that we built through the survey provided a basis for further campaigns. In some departments, like Sociology, we even achieved 100 percent union membership during this time.

Timing can have a major influence on the take-up and power of a survey. One aspect of this is deciding when to launch the survey during the academic year. We launched our initial survey late in the spring term, following several weekly meetings among a small group of casual staff members. Most members of this group stopped attending meetings during Easter Break and the exam-oriented summer term that followed. If we had done it earlier in the year, we could have taken the findings of the survey to department heads/meetings and got the support of permanent academics/whole departments for our demands, as the Fractionals for Fair Play campaign at SOAS managed to do over the final weeks of the 2013/14 spring term.

Another aspect is timing in relation to other things taking place. Our organising at Goldsmiths took place in creative tension with the coming to fruition of a long-term negotiation between Goldsmiths’ UCU branch and Management on the question of pay/contracts for casual staff. These negotiations both contributed to interest in our campaign among casual staff (they assumed we would be able to tell them what was going on in the negotiations) and diverted attention from our focus. While we wanted to fight against the underpayment of casual staff compared to permanent staff, the negotiations focused on the standardisation/equivalent pay for equivalent work among casual staff. In addition, our attempts to take forward a campaign on this issue into the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year was stymied by national UCU’s focus on the pay campaign for all staff (which claimed that “all boats will rise”). Our advice would be to pay attention to what else is going on and try to predict how it might intersect/affect your campaign, while recognising that consequences/effects can never be fully predicted in advance.

One of the key differences between universities and most other workplaces is the ambiguous position of students in the worker-management relation. Students are simultaneously workers-in-training, the commodity produced by the university-as-factory, and consumers of education-as-private-good. The NUS is a union that students join as students. At the same time, postgraduates who teach are employees of the university and, as such, are eligible to join UCU as workers. Consequently, postgraduates who teach are in the unusual position of being able to join two organisations recognised both by university management and the UK government as legitimately representing certain aspects of their relationship with the university. This unusual position presents both potentials and issues for organising efforts, some of which we have noted earlier in this article. Here we want to make some general comments on this unusual position.

To begin with it is valuable to distinguish between two ways of understanding the relationship between the NUS and its members and the UCU and its members. One commonly-held perspective is that these organisations exist to provide services for their members. People who hold this view might grumble if they think their organisation is not doing a good job, or they might terminate their membership. Another perspective - a view held by the authors of this report - is that these organisations exist to provide a vehicle for members to pursue their interests as members (as a student in the case of the NUS and as a worker in the case of the UCU). People who hold this view might also hold the view that there are three levels on which these organisations provide a space for the pursuit of these interests: nationally, at branch level, and at the sub-branch level.

The PGWA was able to get one of its members elected within the NUS National Executive Council, making it possible to introduce the NUS survey. Getting into a position of influence at the national level in either the NUS or UCU is not easy and, as noted earlier, it often seems as if the national leadership of the NUS is dominated by trainee career politicians who are resistant to any initiative that might be perceived as rocking the boat. Similar criticisms have been levelled at the national leadership of the UCU. In comparison, it can be easier to get into a position of influence at branch level such as, for example, that of Branch Officer for Part-time and Hourly-paid Staff. At the same time, there are limits to what can be achieved by a branch officer working alone, and a stronger campaign can be built on the basis of collaboration with differently-positioned allies. Here the potential alliance between the university’s branch of UCU and its Students’ Union can be very useful, and postgraduates who teach become a key constituency at the centre of such a collaboration.

Not all exploited workers have the same interests as each other, and this introduces fault lines between PhD students who are also casual staff, post-PhD casual staff, and permanent academics. The interests of these two groups are closely linked but not identical. Any organising effort, whether it includes a survey or not, needs to recognise these fault lines. A strong case can be made that the main reason most PhD students do casual teaching work is to add teaching experience to their CV and thereby maximise their chances of academic employment post-PhD. A strong case can also be made that most post-PhD casual staff do this kind of work primarily in the hope that ‘keeping a foot in the door’ in this way will increase their chances of more secure and remunerative academic employment in the near future. This difference means that given the poor pay and conditions for most casual academic work, a PhD student has more of an incentive to teach on only one course (“voila, teaching experience is on my CV, job done”) while the post-PhD casual staff may have an incentive to keep doing this work until the bottom falls out of their dream of an academic career because it is simply not economically or psychologically viable to pursue it any more. It also means the post-PhD worker is more likely to be relying on the casual academic job to pay rent. As a result, the post-PhD worker has more incentive to push for regularisation, recognition and equal remuneration than the PhD student. One of the reasons this is important is that post-PhD workers are much less likely to have the time to attend meetings - because in order to make ends meet they are more likely to be running in between various part-time, badly-paid ‘jobs’. We therefore limited all of our meetings during the campaign to one hour, a simple move which we wish other organisers would adopt more frequently than they do.

However, this argument makes an important assumption: that the PhD student believes that they will be able to get a secure and remunerative academic job post-PhD. The greater trend towards casualisation in universities has mean that these prized permanent jobs are becoming increasingly rare. Casualised staff are remaining precarious for longer and management is trying to use this to undermine the terms and conditions of permanent academics. We constantly tried to make the argument to align the interests across these three distinct groups of academic workers, as well as engaging students. After all, given how much money they are now paying in tuition, they should know how little of that actually goes to the workers who lecture, provide seminars, and mark essays.


What we wanted to do with this article was outline how we conducted our survey with the aim of sharing our experience with others. While we made some mistakes, we feel the process was useful and look forward to seeing how others will develop surveys or innovate at other institutions. The end of the survey coincided with the conclusion of the UCU negotiations with management at Goldsmiths. We were told we now had the best contract in the sector for hourly paid staff. This included a calculator to work out how to be paid for preparation time and different rates for work harmonised across the university. We were able to continue organising effectively at the university, turning the relatively staid strategy of the national UCU into something more exciting on a local level. We won a number of local battles over contracts and became a “troublesome” branch in the eyes of the regional UCU organisers. However, given the nature of precarious contracts, we all soon moved onto other workplaces.

We also produced a pamphlet.


Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.

Brendan Donegan

Brendan Donegan is an academic researcher who has focused on social inequality, community health, industrialisation and environmentalism in India. Brendan undertook the organising described in this article in 2012-13, while working as a lecturer in Anthropology at Goldsmiths.

Sølvi Goard

Sølvi Goard was the education officer at Goldsmiths Students’ Union at the time of writing, providing support, resources, and design skills to the campaign.