Research assistants aren’t represented as university employees — here’s why they should be

SFU is forgetting that research assistants are a fundamental part of the university’s business

RAs perform essential work for the university and should be given full protections as workers. Illustration: Tiffany Chan/The Peak

By: Alison Wick, Peak Associate

In 2016 SFU created its 2020 Strategic Research Plan, outlining why, where, and how the university intends to grow as a research institution. Part of their plan to achieve these goals is to “strengthen areas of research excellence” — including promoting the research talent of faculty and students.

Unfortunately, research assistants (RAs) have been almost entirely left out of the Strategic Research Plan. Despite their prevalence, research assistants are mentioned in the document just twice and only in reference to the “hands-on training” they allegedly receive in these positions. The reality is that these students — these workers — by and large aren’t receiving any of the special career-boosting training that the Strategic Research Plan purports to offer. Much of the work RAs do is actually quite rudimentary, and involves the fundamental routine experiments or data updating that supervisors need but don’t have time for.

The decision to minimize RAs in the 2020 Strategic Research Plan ignores the invaluable nature of RA work in SFU’s research production. If SFU wants to live up to its reputation as a leading research university, it needs to recognize that research assistants are workers who deserve benefits, dignity, and respect — not simply students supposedly gaining experience.

Despite doing “the most time-consuming work” for a research project, as an RA from the Faculty of Education described, many research assistants are never given the opportunity to be a real member of the project. In these cases, RAs never have “any chance to be involved in a conference presentation or paper writing for the project that [they’ve] been working on for almost two years.”

For over a year and a half I have been an undergrad research assistant in First Nations Studies and, although my job is interesting and my workplace is positive and supportive, I have found that this is not the norm for research assistants across the university. The more I speak to RAs outside of my department, the more aware I am of the precariousness of this work.

Other similar student positions like teaching assistants (TAs) have long been represented by the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) and thus have a collective agreement and consistent, fair, contracts. Without these same protections, RAs can be subject to widely unreliable, unstable, and inconsistent work and working conditions. As it stands, RA research work is not regulated by either SFU or a labour organizing body, meaning the workload of RAs fluctuates and can be both unforeseeable and overwhelming. One RA reported having been given 100 hours of work in one email, despite the fact that the supervisor was aware that they were in school and working another job off-campus.

Safety conditions in the workplace is another issue. When RAs are faced with an unsafe situation, there is often no structural procedure in place to protect them as whistleblowers. Because of their precarious positions, research assistants have no legitimate representation to support them through grievances. Moreover, they have no real power to advocate for themselves or argue with management without fear of losing their job.

University services like the Ombudsperson or Human Rights Office, (who are supposedly in place to help students in difficult situations or those without representation) both explicitly say that they cannot and do not act as advocates for individual students. Their mediator status means that in an issue between an RA and their supervisor, research assistants are on their own while supervisors are backed by the university. Additionally, neither the Ombudsperson nor the Human Rights Office are labour organizations, so they have exceptionally inadequate power in navigating and resolving employee-employer conflict or other workplace issues. Their mandate is to address academic concerns, not labour law.

The way RAs are paid can also vary greatly across the university. Some research assistants are paid an hourly wage and keep personal hour logs they submit to the department, getting paid on a bi-weekly basis. For other students, the wages they receive are sporadic and uncertain. These aren’t reliable wages,rather just lump sums of money sometimes granted at the end of a project directly from a supervisor. This can add stress onto supervisors who are unfamiliar with being in charge of payroll, and may subsequently forget this step in the RA agreement. Both the amount and timing of this money — given for work already completed — is unreliable and often unknown to these RAs ahead of time.

In 2016 the Graduate Student Society (GSS) conducted a survey that found the top three complaints held by research assistants were overwork, lack of union representation, and not being paid on time. Of all the student workers surveyed — including TAs and tutor markers (TMs) — 63% reported having had to rely on savings. Fifty-two percent had to rely on parents, family members, and/or partners for financial support. The unpredictability of RA pay exacerbates the financial stress already felt by student workers to an unfair degree.

Even though my situation as an RA is comparatively good, this is not because of any SFU policy. All of my resources as a worker — from my research to my working conditions — are entirely dependent on the supportiveness, flexibility, and kindness of my co-workers and my supervisor with little input or guidance from SFU. This shouldn’t be the case; the work I do is not just for my supervisor, but for the university as well. In other words, SFU benefits from my labour without having to give a second thought to any of the benefits and recognition that my colleagues and I deserve.

Reflecting on the idea that RAs are students rather than workers, an RA who was berated for reporting safety concerns said this:

“. . . how many papers would be published, how many experiments would be completed, how many discoveries would be made without research assistants [ . . . ] all of those outcomes, papers, experiments, discoveries, require work and research assistants do the bulk of that work, they are workers, who also are students.”

SFU needs to recognize and treat all its research assistants as workers who contribute to the functionality of the university on a fundamental level. The resources are there. SFU boasts $140 million in research income, increasing annually. Research assistants are workers who deserve fair treatment, respect, and recognition from the institution that they, in part, help build.