National review on PhD pay hailed as victory after years of campaigning

National review on PhD pay hailed as victory after years of campaigning

Shaakya Anand-Vembar was plagued with financial worries during her PhD. Picture: Moya Nolan

The State will carry out a national review of its supports for PhD researchers, marking a significant victory for postgraduate campaigners.

Speaking at the joint Oireachtas committee on education last week, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said there should be a “minimum floor” for PhD stipends which “needs to be higher”.

Ireland’s researchers are among the lowest paid in Europe at around €18,500 per year, the highest of which is Denmark, where researchers are paid up to €50,000 annually. A significant number engage in part time work to survive, which has a detrimental effect on their research.

There is currently no minimum amount for stipends and income greatly depends on the funding organisation or third-level institution is funding the researcher.

The announcement has received a broad welcome from postgraduate campaigners who have sought a change in conditions for years.

Announced last Wednesday, the review will consider financial supports, the status of researchers (as a student or employee), graduate outcomes and visa requirements for non-EU researchers. The review will begin in November and will be completed in early 2023.

The minister said he was “committed to investing in talent and ensuring that there are appropriate supports for researchers”. He said the review will hear from “frontline” stakeholders including researchers, host institutions, research funders and relevant Government Departments.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) welcomed the announcement but urged the minister to consult postgraduate researchers’ groups on the terms of the review before its commencement.

USI vice president for postgraduate affairs Waqar Ahmed said: “We demand the recognition of all postgraduate researchers engaged in research as workers with employee status, living income, parental rights and benefits.

Recognising doctoral candidates as employees will stimulate the research working environment.

“PhDs continue to struggle, our situation made considerably more difficult by the housing and cost of living crises,” the Postgraduate Workers' Alliance of Ireland (PGWA) said.

Established in 2019, the PGWA represents postgraduate researchers and has been vocal with protests on the need for reform in the sector.

“We will continue to escalate and broaden the base of our campaign until significant reforms are implemented in full — we will not settle for reports, statements or temporary solutions, we need deep, structural changes to how PhDs operate in Ireland.” 

“Crucially, there will be a review of PhD worker status, where we will advocate for a model similar to those found in continental Europe, where PhD researchers are treated as salaried employees, as opposed to students. If Irish research is to have a future, PhDs must be paid commensurate to our essential contribution to the sector.” 

Budget 2023 granted PhD researchers in receipt of funding from Science Foundation Ireland or the Irish Research Council a €500 increase to their stipend.

Last August, more than 420 PhD researchers signed an open letter calling for an increase in their stipend after the Government announced a scheme granting researchers in certain areas a stipend of €28,000, inviting condemnation from those struggling to meet ends meet on an average of €10,000 or less.

‘I had to take a break because of my mental health’

For 27-year-old Trinity College researcher Shaakya Anand-Vembar, much of her degree has been spent preoccupied by how to survive earning less than the minimum wage.

In Ireland, PhD candidates are not formally considered staff, despite the fact that many work tirelessly within their faculties and are the backbone of undergraduate tuition.

Originally from India, Ms Anand-Vembar studied in the US and the Netherlands before coming to Dublin in March 2019 to take up her PhD candidacy at Trinity’s department of psychiatry.

The €17,000 annual stipend she receives from the university isn’t nearly enough to support living in the capital amid rising rents and a cost-of-living crisis.

 Shaakya Anand-Vembar: Precarious finances affected her mental health.
Shaakya Anand-Vembar: Precarious finances affected her mental health.

Financial difficulties have plagued her time in Ireland and “adversely affected her research”. She found “part time jobs here and there” which “really burned me out” and “took a lot of time and motivation from my PhD”.

“Living at home is not an option for me [as an international],” she said, and added she is constantly thinking about how to make money to survive.

“It really affected my mental health to the point where I had to take a break from my PhD [last] summer, for a couple of months,” she said.

“Because of that I’ll have to extend my PhD so I’m worried about my finances.” As she accepted her stipend during her time off, she will have to finish the last stretch of her research without income from the stipend.

For non-EU candidates, immigration difficulties are an added worry and cost.

“If you were a worker and had an employment permit, you don’t have to renew your (€300) permit every year,” she said.

A change in employment status for PhD candidates would give researchers a “huge relief”, she said, but lamented that any changes may not affect her before finishing her research.

“Employment status over student status,” she said, and expressed hope that there will be postgraduates represented on the review panel to be appointed in the coming weeks.

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