Postgrads are being exploited as free fill-in lecturers - and union organisers must step in to protect them, UCU delegates urged today.
The University and College Union's conference in Manchester promised to reach out to students in their fight against "casualisation" in academia - the rise of short-term contracts, hours-only contracts or even no contracts at all.
University of Edinburgh delegate Philip Inglesant warned too many postgraduate students were falling into the latter category. Where regular staff were resisting or unable to commit to extra hours, institutions were increasingly leaning on postgraduate students to fill in for free, doing hours of research or even lecturing classes.
"They feel it's part of their duty. They feel it's compulsory - It's not," Mr Inglesant said.
But it was difficult to say No to a supervisor, he said.
And many students did not know they could join the University and College Union as well.
Women's Members Standing Committee observer Vicky Blake said universities had tacitly convinced postgraduates that unpaid labour was essential to getting a paid position.
She said: "Not only that they're doing it to advance their careers, but to feel lucky that they're being given the opportunity to be exploited."
The trend was especially disturbing as it set them up for further exploitation as their careers progressed, she said.
But Goldsmiths delegate Luke Evans held out hope for the future, saying many postgraduates were ripe for unionisation.
"Some of those postgraduates who we're talking about were at Millbank smashing windows - they're the ones who'll be negotiators."