Dec 15, 2020

GSU Releases PhD Survey Data to Workers’ Rights Group After Months of Conflict

The GSU and TCD PhD Workers’ Rights Group have grappled over the release of results of a survey for the past few months.

Cormac WatsonEditor
Róisín Power for The University Times

Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) President Gisèle Scanlon has released results from a survey about issues PhD students are facing to the TCD PhD Workers’ Rights Group, after months of conflict between the two groups over the sharing of the data.

Scanlon released the results this evening to Shaakya Anand Vembar – one of the creators of the survey and a member of the rights group – and also said that she had a 27-page legal ruling asking that the data be destroyed. The rights group, however, has not seen this legal ruling, and no details of it are yet known.

Scanlon said in a tweet today that since Anand Vembar had created the questions, it was “maybe the safest way forward for us all to protect the participants”. Scanlon said that she was now a “joint data controller”.


Scanlon said in a tweet that she was “looking forward to publishing the report so we highlight the truth about our research community”.

The rights group told this newspaper that as far as it was aware, the results passed over were the raw data from the survey.

The GSU President had last month come under fire from the rights group for refusing to release data from the survey, which was authored by the group and carried out by the GSU.

Scanlon imposed several conditions as part of a data sharing agreement that the rights group must sign prior to being granted permission to use the data.

However, no data sharing agreement was signed by the TCD PhD Workers’ Rights Group before the president’s decision tonight to release the data.

Last month, Simon McGarr, the director of Data Compliance Europe, told this newspaper that Scanlon’s decision was valid, since the data collected could potentially be used to identify the respondents.

Several of the questions – such as those that asked respondents where they were from, what faculty they were studying in, what the duration of their PhD was, what year they were in, and what age they were – could conceivably allow for reidentification.

“Legitimately you have difficulties in respect of the processing of that data in a public way and the sharing of it”, he said.

He added: “If I were in the position of being the person who was the data controller or joint controller, I would be extremely cautious with this raw data.” McGarr also warned that, if a group running a survey “inadvertently” gathered personal information, they “absolutely shouldn’t share them on”.

In a statement to The University Times this evening, TCD PhD Workers’ Right Group Chair Thomas Dineen said that the group is “extremely confused by this recent development”.

“Gisèle insisted in November that no data could be shared with the TPWRG due to advice received from the College DPO and college solicitor. Gisèle insisted that the TPWRG signed a data sharing agreement because of the confidential nature of the data and said that the TPWRG were not data controllers.”

“The TPWRG never signed the agreement and thus, Gisèle withheld the data from the group. Now, Gisèle has sent the data to the TPWRG without signing a data sharing agreement and acknowledged that the TPWRG are in fact the data controllers.”

“This represents either a serious breach of the advice given by the College DPO and College solicitor or, it could be that Gisèle was dishonest about the confidentiality of the data all along.”

Dineen added that the group would not process the data until was certain it can “proceed”.

“We have not seen any of the advice Gisèle received with regards to data protection. Questions will need to be answered at tomorrow’s GSU AGM”, Dineen concluded.

On Sunday night, Scanlon blocked a motion – backed by the rights group – set to be brought to the union’s AGM tomorrow that would have mandated the GSU to release the data.

In an email sent to the rights group on Sunday, Scanlon said that it was “regrettable” that it brought forward the motion “without first adequately explaining your purported concerns and allowing those concerns to be fully addressed”.

She also “strenuously” denied “inappropriate allegations” that the GSU was not fulfilling its mandate to support the rights group’s “aims and objectives”.

“Notwithstanding our concerns”, she added, “we would welcome and encourage any cogent, legal advice or arguments together with any supporting documentation, with regard to how WRG can categorically, and apparently with ease, state: the survey responses do not constitute personal data, the survey was ‘completely anonymous’, [the group] are “co-owners of the data”, and that the students were fully informed as to the purpose and conditions of processing.”

In relation to releasing the survey data, Scanlon said that the GSU “will act in accordance with the law, and as stated above, the GSU upon seeking external legal advice expects to provide our final determination with regard to the Survey in a matter of days”.

Scanlon did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

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