PhD students hit in new agreement
Staff employed on a fixed-term basis and PhD students are the ones who will be most affected by the new Transition Agreement which has been in force since 1 January 2015.
The new Transition Agreement reached between the Agency for Government Employers (SAGE) and the union organisations Saco-S, ST/OFR and SEKO replaces the earlier State Job Security Agreement. The agreement also covers non-union members. The agreement regulates transition support, meaning the support that state employees are entitled to if they are made redundant or when a fixed-term period of employment expires.
Some good news in the new Transition Agreement is that the age limit for entitlement to support goes up from 65 to 67. The agreement also covers government employees stationed abroad, including postdocs who the Swedish Research Council sends abroad.
“I also think this will be a better way of giving financial support to someone starting a new job with a lower salary than they had in their previous job, before they were made redundant. Now they have 780 days topping up that they can take whenever they want, rather like parental insurance,” says Krzysztof Marciniak, chairperson of Saco-S at LiU (picture right).
On the other hand, he is not happy with the treatment of PhD students in “education employment” as it is called in the new agreement.
“The opportunity for PhD students to receive support from the Job Security Foundation is reduced. It is very unfortunate and I don't understand the reasoning behind it. It can hardly be due to financial considerations. The Job Security Foundation is financially healthy.”
Mr Marciniak claims that the emphasis in the agreement is now on transition, not security, exactly as the name implies.
“However, the agreement does not encourage job mobility; on the contrary, it inhibits job mobility in the academic world.”
Then why did you go along with the agreement?
“The Swedish Association of University Teachers, SULF, protested and expressed their reservations about the agreement. But SULF is just one organisation in the Saco family. For other unions in Saco-S and for the other parties, this was not a particularly important issue. And unemployment among PhD students is not very high and definitely not long term.”
What is your advice to PhD students?
“Join the union!” From 1 January, SULF has implemented an income insurance that covers the difference between the A-kassa unemployment benefit scheme and 80% of the actual salary, even for those not entitled to this support. The insurance will be covered by union dues, which were therefore raised somewhat in the new year. Many other unions within Saco-s have an insurance scheme of this kind.”
The new agreement stems from two situations: if someone is made redundant or when a fixed-term contract expires. For those on open-ended contracts, there are no major changes from the previous agreement. For those on a fixed-term contract, their entitlement to support is reduced and made dependent on how long they were employed. The longer the period of employment, the more support. On the other hand, a certain amount of support may be received after just two years of employment, in contrast to the previous minimum of three years during the preceding four-year period.
In addition the concept of the “functional employer” was introduced when calculating the qualifying period, meaning the time required in order to receive the different types of benefit in the agreement. Previously it had been possible to count all government employment within the qualifying period; now, however, only the period of employment with the employer in question when the employment ceased may be counted. One other change has to do with special pension compensation, meaning the compensation received under certain conditions if you are made redundant. Previously it was possible to get special pension compensation from the age of 61. Now the age limit is raised to 62 and there also need to be special reasons to receive it.
PhD students may indeed be a small group within SACO-S. But at LiU there are over 1,300 of them, making up one-third of the workforce. One of them is Magnus Elfwing (pictured below right). He was there when SULF held an information meeting, and became both provoked and upset.
“The way they explained things at the meeting it sounded like what we do is not real, making it seem like education, something we do for our own benefit. The way I look at it, it is us PhD students who are driving and carrying out a large part of the research done in Sweden. And we do a lot of the teaching – all lab teaching, for example. We PhD students conduct a great deal of the practical activities. But all this is clearly not deemed to be work.”
Mr Elfwing is a PhD student at the Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, in the biology division. His research looks at how domestication has influenced stress responses in chickens. He will defend his thesis in six months. After that, he does not know what he will do. The labour market for “white biologists” died in principle when Astra Zeneca gave up its research.
“The fact that the PhD position is fixed-term is something you know when you go into it. I could find a place as a postdoc, but that’s just pushing back the problem a couple of years. And competition is fierce.”
“Defending your PhD thesis is a completely unique situation,” Mr Elfwing maintains. “As the date approaches the more stressful it is. And you can feel quite vulnerable, having to defend the work you have been doing for the previous five years.”
“It’s not easy to try and concentrate on finding a job at the same time. Now on top of that we have been put outside the job security system.”
The argument put forward at the information meeting and elsewhere – that PhD students are such a small group – holds no sway with Mr Elfwing.
“It feels like they are sacrificing a whole group. If there are so few of us and if unemployment is so low, then what's the problem with us being in the system? Our society encourages education, and they try and push everyone through university. But when our education is over and done we are completely without security.”
In addition to the central transition agreement, a new agreement will also be signed regarding local transition funds at LiU. During the year, LiU and the union organisations will sign a new agreement for how these funds should be spent.
“The aim is to work proactively to find ways to avoid redundancy,” says Director of Human Resources Randi Hellgren (picture left). In recent years transition funds were only used for pension support, as the aim was to facilitate a generation and skills shift stemming from LiU’s large number of retirements. Apart from pension support, funds for local transitions can be used, for example, for skills development, double staffing, trainee programmes, individual agreements and outplacement.
Regarding the worse conditions for PhD students in the Transition Agreement compared with the Job Security Agreement it replaced, Ms Hellgren says that there is a difference between employees with fixed-term contracts, for example PhD students, and those with open-ended contracts.
“In the case of transition it is appropriate for those with open-ended contracts to have greater and more comprehensive benefits than those on fixed-term contracts. Regardless of what type of employment an employee has, the transition agreement has different types of support and benefits. For state employees, it is the Job Security Foundation that provides support and takes action aimed at finding a new job. The Job Security Foundation reports that in 2014, 96% of their clients found a solution within one year.”
Text and photo: Elisabet Wahrby
Last updated: 2015-01-26