“Nothing will be off the table in order to demonstrate our feelings on the matter.”
These were the words of Matt Murtagh, the Data Officer of the PhDs’ Collective Action Union (PCAU).
The conversation surrounding rights for postgraduate researchers in further and higher education institutions dominated the third level sector in late 2022 and into early 2023. Their demands include a minimum liveable stipend of €28k per year, legal worker status as well as improving conditions for non-EU researchers.
The PCAU was founded in June 2022 in response to a new initiative announced by Minister for Higher Education and Research Simon Harris and then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin providing a €28k stipend for 400 new PhD researchers.
“The rest of us looked at that and went ‘what’ because currently, the highest stipend that any PhD receives in Ireland is €18.5k”, PCAU President Kyle Hamilton explained, adding that “it’s only a fraction of people who get that amount” since it is often only awarded to those funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Irish Research Council (IRC).
Nothing will be off the table in order to demonstrate our feelings on the matter
According to data collected by the PCAU, there are approximately 12,000 postgraduate researchers working in Ireland, including those pursuing a research masters. Of these, around ¼ are non-EU researchers who face added barriers to researching and working in Ireland.
“Every year they have to spend €300 out of their own pocket to renew their residence permit”, Murtagh added. These residence permits are often given in as little as 8-month intervals often as a result of needing to reapply at the beginning of the academic year, and there is an 8-12 week backlog on requests to renew their permits, which has resulted in “researchers who have been denied the chance to see their family at Christmas because they’re still waiting for the appointment”.
Researchers are also not allowed to reclaim the money spent on renewing their permit. “The funding that’s provided doesn’t allow these researchers to be reimbursed”, said Murtagh, meaning that non-EU researchers are down an additional €300 every year.
Trinity PhD researcher and member of the TCD Postgraduate Workers’ Alliance (PGWA) Shaakya Anand-Vembar, who is an Indian citizen, explained some of the difficulties she and others have encountered regarding visa issues and a lack of access to equipment and conferences.
“As a non-EU researcher, especially someone with Indian citizenship, my passport is pretty weak, and that really makes a difference … the experience of a non-EU researcher from America or Canada is very different given that they can travel much more easily to places”, she said.
The highest stipend that any PhD receives in Ireland is €18.5k
“On a Stamp 2 you have to renew your residence permit every year of your course rather than just having one residence permit that’s valid for the duration, so every year we have to renew our permits which costs €300.”
“There’s no actual reason for us to pay €300 for a plastic card, and they could easily change that,” Anand-Vembar added.
“I have been a student in America and in the Netherlands and they both do it that way – once you get your student visa it is valid for the duration of your course. If for any reason you have to drop out or you fail your course, that’s when you’d have to renew your permit, but other than that your visa is valid for the duration of your course.”
Recent events also saw a PhD researcher leave her programme as a result of visa issues stemming from untenable financial requirements for non-EU researchers. Ola Abagun had received her student visa, but had to deregister from her programme when her husband and daughter were denied visas and the appeals failed to overturn the verdict.
In a thread posted to Twitter, Abagun explained that her “study visa was approved in November 2021” but her husband and child had their visas denied as a result of the requirement for non-EEA graduate students to demonstrate access to over €107k.
“The only ground for the denial was “inadequate finances” despite my guaranteed €64k non-taxable stipend over 4 years and eligibility to take on paid teaching hours”, she said.
There’s no actual reason for us to pay €300 for a plastic card, and they could easily change that
Non-EU researchers also struggle with travel. “If you’re within a three-month expiry of your IRP you can’t even apply for a Schengen visa,” Anand-Vembar added. “When you count the amount of time that it takes to renew and receive your IRP card, that will add another few months to the travel prohibition.”
“A lot of [postgraduate researchers] need specific scientific equipment to conduct research and we need to travel to other universities to access that equipment. We often collaborate with other universities to run experiments, so that disproportionately affects non-EU Global South researchers because we can’t travel on short notice.”
The travel and visa restrictions also cause problems for researchers who have had work accepted into conferences outside of Ireland – they are left unable to attend or present. “Usually in those cases, a colleague will go and present your poster for you. It’s unfortunate that these restrictions exist because it ends up overwhelmingly being the minority researchers who are affected.”
For many postgraduate researchers, their duties are left unclear and many are required to teach without pay as part of their programme. Hamilton explained that postgraduate researchers “have very little transparency and autonomy when it comes to those duties” and that “we’re hoping to work together and merge so that we can fall under SIPTU’s umbrella so we can exercise some of those union-related rights”.
“The work that we do is work and should be compensated as such. We’re asking for equal and fair treatment of all PhDs and that includes people who are non-EU domiciled”.
The only ground for the denial was “inadequate finances” despite my guaranteed €64k non-taxable stipend over 4 years and eligibility to take on paid teaching hours
Members of the PCAU Executive Committee met with researchers from all the departments in Trinity to discuss the issues they face. Explaining some of their findings, Murtagh said that not only is “no one in Trinity paid above a minimum wage as far as the stipend provision goes”, the highest stipend payments are “still 30% below minimum wage”.
Researchers also faced issues with maternity and sick leave. Anyone going off-books also loses access to their funding for an extended period of time, possibly for good, he explained. “We do have cases where at some point in their PhD journey, researchers have become parents and they have to leave, and they lose their funding. They may lose it for an extended period of time or they may lose it for good.”
“It’s up to their supervisor in the department whether they want to extend the PhD at the end of that as a result of missing that time in research”, he said.
Both Hamilton and Murtagh describe the situation as “a crisis” – “we absolutely love teaching undergrads, we’re here because we love knowledge and the transfer of knowledge to the wider academic community, but we’re reaching a bursting point where there’s not going to be enough researchers to provide a quality education for undergrads”, Murtagh explained.
For Hamilton, the crisis goes further. “It comes down to funding”, she noted. “I don’t heat my house during the day because I simply can’t afford to”.
It’s unfortunate that these restrictions exist because it ends up overwhelmingly being the minority researchers who are affected
She and many other researchers are also expected to pay costs for conferences including registration fees, travel and accommodation out of pocket. “People end up not doing certain aspects of their research, not going to conferences or not publishing in certain publications that are costly”, she said.
And it’s not just Dublin researchers. In addition to cost of living, mental health and financial issues, the University of Galway (UoG) put out a policy earlier this year that cut pay for teaching and demonstrating in half and removed pay for lecturing.
“The idea behind the policy was to have a comprehensive, inclusive of all schools and colleges, policy for the payment of these workers. Unfortunately that policy was done with very little consultation, if any”, former UoG Postgraduate Representative Criodán Ó Murchú stated.
“When PhDs rely on being recognised as lecturers in order to further their career, the policy stripped that back. It reduced the rates for the tutoring rate that was previously established.”
He also stated that even if their voice is entirely disregarded, having a postgraduate researcher on university boards is enough to count as consultation. “I think the word consultation is completely misused and third level because if you sit on a committee or if you have a postgraduate in a meeting, even if you take nothing on board with what they say, that is still consultation.”
I don’t heat my house during the day because I simply can’t afford to
Ó Murchú was elected to Údarás na hOllscoile, UoG’s governing body, as a postgraduate researcher and has since graduated. He has also been involved with PGWA Galway and with the PCAU.
When the policy came into effect, “there was a sincere lack of clarification around things regarding other academic duties”, Ó Murchú explained. “When this policy came through, it came through in an email which outlined that previously PhDs had to do 120 hours of unpaid teaching contributions per year, and that was removed.”
“I tweeted about it, I said this is great, it has taken years to get that unpaid work abolished, but when actually going through the policy, they had made a number of changes that had made PhDs worse off”, he said.
The reaction from UoG’s postgraduate researchers has been less than stellar. “The PhDs are unhappy, to say the least. When it was initially raised with HR by the PhDs, they essentially said this is the policy, if you’re unhappy with it contact your manager, and it escalated from there”, Ó Murchú explained.
“I raised it in the Úadarás meeting in October and I was told to go and talk to the head of research and innovation and the dean of graduate studies and have a chat there. They essentially paddled us back to HR but in all of the lead-up time to that meeting HR had said this is an academic issue.”
When PhDs rely on being recognised as lecturers in order to further their career, the policy stripped that back
“I wasn’t very friendly in that meeting because I was trying to get them to admit what they were saying instead of this long-winded story. I wanted them to say whether they thought people should be paid for equal work … These people are really unhappy, and if they don’t get urgent clarification on this policy this may be a make-or-break moment not just for UoG but for PhDs around the country”, he said.
Fourth-year PhD researcher at the University of Galway Karolina Wojtczak agreed with Ó Murchú: “I know people in the humanities, for instance in the law school, who would teach full lecture courses for their supervisors, and it’s completely ridiculous that you’re doing someone else’s job for them and you’re getting paid half of what they are for not doing their job”, she said.
“The local Postgraduate Workers Alliance did a petition that they asked postgrads to sign, and they hand-delivered it to the president of the university and the registrar. As far as I know there’s been zero response.”
Wojtczak mentioned that while she thought the petition was “a good first step”, what would be most effective would be a general strike action similar to the events in California in November.
“You have to make them really realise that without us there is no teaching, the machine stops”, she said. “Organising, getting people on board to really just put an end to it, similar to what happened in California.”
If they don’t get urgent clarification on this policy this may be a make-or-break moment not just for UoG but for PhDs around the country
“The general public is probably the most ignorant about this because they think the PhDs are students who get summers off”, she added. “It’s a full-time job, I don’t get the summer off, I barely get paid enough to live with this full-time job.”
Wojtczak has faced other issues relating to workload and pay in addition to the policy changes. “In our department we’ve been involved in trying to get paid for the work we do in teaching labs because we were one of the only departments of chemistry in Ireland that did not pay their researchers for work.”
“Just the year before we’d managed to get them to pay us for our job as teaching assistants and they wanted to take that away after the pandemic,” she said. “Without us, teaching labs don’t work. If we refuse to teach, there’s no teaching labs and therefore there’s no happy undergrads to pay the fees.”
So, what can be done to solve these issues? The ongoing review of PhD resources in Ireland to be completed in early 2023 may bring about some changes, but the changes already implemented have done little to assist with the cost of living, and representatives across the sector have been increasingly discussing the possibility of a general strike.
“Even with the proposed addresses in the budget for PhDs it’s not enough. We don’t get any supports at all. If we get sick, thank god we have the student health unit in the University because we don’t have insurance”, Wojtczak said.
You have to make them really realise that without us there is no teaching, the machine stops
“Anyone working any job can afford to go to the doctor and have their eyes checked once a year with PRSI. We can’t, we have to save for months to afford new glasses. We get €1,500 a month, if one of us gets a tooth chipped or has to get a filling, it’s either pay that or starve.”
“The real solution to me is to adopt a model by law where PhD students are considered workers”, Wojtczak stated. “That’s the first step because that allows us access to pensions, tax rebates, whatever special bracket they need to make it happen. And a liveable wage, at least €28k a year.”
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has also been working to bring the issues to the attention of the government. USI Vice-President for Postgraduate Affairs Waqar Ahmed said that “when we acknowledge that [we are researchers], the question of how much we need to be paid goes away”.
USI had previously worked with SIPTU to produce a postgraduate rights charter and has been highlighting the issue of low stipends to the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and to other national funding bodies, and they have met with Simon Harris to see what supports are available.
“From a grassroots level, we did the national student walkout and one of the four points that we had was a fair wage for all. We want postgraduates to have the fair wage they deserve.”
If we get sick, thank god we have the student health unit in the University because we don’t have insurance
Ahmed also added that since Ireland has signed the European Research Charter, it has an obligation to uphold the rights of postgraduate researchers. “It’s appalling that Ireland has so many institutions that signed that charter but none of them are willing to act upon the principles.”
As for the policy in Galway? Ó Murchú says: “the PhDs that [he’s] involved with have been invited to propose some changes to the policy, and hopefully that means that the policy can be changed by HR, however, that still may require getting a lot of people on side”.
“There is a clause in postgraduate courses to raise fees in line with inflation, and that has happened to the postgrads in Galway, but at the exact same time their stipends and fees are not being increased, they’re being cut.”
“If this doesn’t get people out and striking, or really looking for better, I don’t know what will”, he said, adding that while “a strike is the conventional approach that would be taken in a unionised workplace”, postgraduate researchers would face additional challenges in organising one as they would “have their stipends withheld from them by the university”.
“You need the PhDs to stop doing that work, and that puts them in a difficult position. If you tell them to not do their work, that could have implications for them in terms of their future or their funding”, he explained. “The university knows it’s in the wrong here but … they’re relying on PhDs who are not from Ireland who are concerned about the legal ramifications if they go out on strike.”
It’s not only us that’s being affected by this, it’s the quality of their own education
The right to pay while striking would be among the benefits of worker status, one of the core demands of the postgraduate rights movement and one possible step that would significantly improve the situation.
“There are a few basics in being recognised as an employee such as being entitled to sick pay, being entitled to parental and maternity leave, having pension contributions”, Ó Murchú explained.
The PCAU are also prepared to put radical action on the table if the outcomes of the review are insufficient. “If it’s the case that the review has a lacklustre conclusion and it’s not going to improve the conditions to a level that is sufficient to our members, we will ballot our members on whether they accept the outcomes”, said Murtagh.
“These are legitimate concerns and this isn’t something that was made up in a day by a handful of people, this is coming from the community and is supported by PGWA”, added Hamilton.
The message from postgraduate researchers to the public and to undergraduate students across the sector is the same: solidarity with postgraduate researchers is essential, both for their own survival and for the quality of undergraduate education.
If this doesn’t get people out and striking, or really looking for better, I don’t know what will
“Please get behind us and help us because it’s going to help our entire community”, Murtagh stated. “What I would ask for is their solidarity: to understand that it’s not only us that’s being affected by this, it’s the quality of their own education when we have to make the decision on the quality of what we can do based on what we’re paid and the time we’re allotted.”
Or, as Hamilton put it: “We deserve basic human rights and dignity to live and work.”