Áine Kenny: PhD students call for urgent reform of the system

PhD scholars are calling for a reform of the system, citing a lack of standardisation, meagre stipends, and their spouses not being allowed to work as serious issues.
Áine Kenny: PhD students call for urgent reform of the system

Sidra Hareem Zulfiqar, a PhD scholar at UL's Kemmy Business School and originally from Pakistan. File picture: Brian Arthur

PhD scholars carrying out research in Ireland are calling for an urgent reform of the system.

Many PhDs detailed the lack of standardisation, unpaid teaching work and their spouses not being granted the right to work as serious issues.

They also want to be seen as employees of the universities they work for, as opposed to students, and they claim to have little working rights.

Sidra Hareem Zulfiqar is a PhD scholar in the University of Limerick's Kemmy Business School. She is originally from Pakistan.

She says it is not made clear to non-EU PhD scholars that in most cases, their spouses will not have the right to work.

"The government of Ireland allows the spouses of non-EU PhD students to accompany them for the duration of their program, between three to five years," says Sidra.

"These spouses are usually granted a Stamp 3 visa, which does not allow them to engage in any kind of employment, self-employment, business or trade."

Sidra says that for the annual visa renewal, the spouses are required to have €7000 for their own living costs. 

She says: "It becomes complicated since the spouse does not have an income; the onus is on the PhD student to generate this amount of money every year, so that the spouse can continue to accompany them as family."

Sidra says many PhD students are in their mid-careers, as is their spouse. 

She says: "My husband decided to move to Ireland for me to complete my PhD. He was a journalist back in Pakistan, at the height of his career. He thought he would be able to get a job in Ireland."

Before Sidra arrived in Ireland, she tried to find out whether her husband would be granted the right to work. 

She looked for information from the university, the INIS, the Department of Justice, the Irish embassy in Pakistan, and even lawyers, but struggled to get a definitive answer, with each body directing her to the next.

Eventually, Sidra was told that she would not know until they arrived in Ireland and her husband received his visa stamp.

She says: "There needs to be more clarity given to international scholars in relation to this. The provision of information was very disappointing."

Sidra says there are very qualified spouses sitting idle at home and the burden is on the PhD student to provide. 

This is putting people at risk of poverty.

She says this situation makes it difficult to focus on her studies, as well as the effect it is having on her husband. 

She says: "He feels isolated. He is considering volunteering, just for something to do."

She says that he always supported her throughout her academic career, despite their culture often not encouraging women to get an education. 

"I feel guilty for bringing him here."

Sidra says international PhD students are allowed to work part-time up to 20 hours a week during term, and full time up to 40 hours per week off-term.

"But this means couples and even families could be surviving on the PhD stipend, which is usually under €20,000 per year, especially if the PhD candidate does not have a job for these permitted hours," she says.

Since March 2019, spouses of PhDs have been granted the right to work (Stamp 1G visa), if their partner has a hosting agreement with the university.

However, most PhD students do not have a hosting agreement, which Sidra says is essentially a contract between the university and the scholar/researcher.

"There is really no difference between [the work of a] PhD scholar on a hosting agreement and one without, but students on a hosting agreement are considered employees of the university. The salary is interchangeable with the stipend, but salary is usually higher," Sidra says.

There is no difference in terms of academics, and the selection criteria is the same.

Sidra believes the system overall is leading to 'brain drain' in Ireland, and that taxpayer's money is funding PhDs yet as soon as the scholars finish, they leave to seek opportunities elsewhere because their life in Ireland was so hard.

"Highly qualified PhD holders and their spouses leave the country, due to lack of access to opportunities and poor career prospects. 

"The UK, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Estonia, and Netherlands are committed to retaining their international PhD scholars from non-EU countries by introducing friendly policies of economic and social integration for their families, and by providing the right to work for the joining family members."

Sidra hopes that the newly-established Department of Higher Education will rectify this situation, in order for Ireland to retain these highly-qualified individuals.

A UL spokesperson said: "UL is not in favour of classifying PhD students as employees, nor is the Irish Universities Association (IUA)."

When asked about hosting agreements, UL said that it has hosting agreements in place, but these are for "non-EU researchers who are employees, not PhD students."

As for unpaid teaching hours, UL said students may be required to give up to six unpaid contact hours per week for academic support, as outlined in the UL Postgraduate Student Charter, provided this does not conflict with terms associated with funding from an external agency.

 Shaakya Anand-Vembar a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan
Shaakya Anand-Vembar a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan

Shaakya Anand-Vembar is a Trinity PhD scholar from the psychiatry department, who is originally from India. 

She says fortunately, her research data can be collected remotely for now, unlike other students whose research has stalled due to the pandemic.

However, she worries about what will happen if she needs an extension at the very end of her PhD, because of the months of interrupted research during the pandemic. 

Shaakya would also have to pay for accommodation during the PhD extension, and without a stipend this would be impossible to afford.

She says: "That is a serious issue for students who are at the end of the PhD now, who needed access to labs to complete their experiments."

She says that visa issues are also a concern for her, as a non-EU student. 

"If I needed an extension, I would also need to apply for a student visa extension, and I don't know how that would work out," she says. 

Shaakya says PhDs are in a limbo between staff and students. 

"We are considered students but we are doing the work of staff. There's no standardisation. 

If PhD students were considered employees, at least we would have contracts.

"There is so much variation in how much PhD students get paid [in a stipend], and what students get paid for tutoring. 

"Some departments are not paying students for tutoring at all, some were being paid relatively well. Different hours were being given too."

Shaakya says the key to solving this issue is to get PhDs recognised as employees, and this approach is standard across other EU countries.

A Trinity College spokesperson said: "As part of its strategic plan from 2020 to 2025, Trinity College Dublin is commencing a full review of all Graduate education.

"Additionally, the university has engaged with Irish Universities Association colleagues to negotiate with funding bodies to extend the funding windows for research impacted by the pandemic... in many cases, we have also been able to extend the deadlines for thesis submission."

When asked about unpaid teaching hours, Trinity said certain funding awards require students to undertake some teaching, while some students teach voluntarily.

They said: "The extent of this teaching can vary depending on the research grant and we are aware that working hours can vary across different PhD programmes."

Sarah Carter, a PhD student in NUI Galway's school of engineering, says many international postgraduate students have been stuck in Ireland and paying rent, waiting for the universities to reopen fully.

She is originally from the USA and is worried about the upcoming academic year. 

"We are usually asked to teach tutorials, without payment and without compensation. 

"They haven't given us any information about whether they will all be online. Many of us want to stop paying rent and go home to our families if it is all online."

Sarah has been working remotely since March. 

She says: "Our research has stalled. They told us we should take a retroactive leave of absence for the months we were in lockdown. 

"But this means for the last three or four months of our research, if we don't complete it on time, we would not be getting the stipend.

"How do we afford our houses? We aren't making any money anyway. Luckily my department has been good at saying they will try to find extra funding for us if it does happen."

She also says the variation between the stipend amounts is unfair and that the process should be standardised. 

"Most stipends are roughly €16,000 per year. Teaching is usually unpaid, but it depends on the department."

Sarah recently joined the Postgraduate Workers Alliance. She says a key issue is that PhD students in Ireland are seen as students, not employees of the universities, which means they have little working and employment rights. 

This is despite the fact that some PhD students are being paid their stipend by the university themselves.

The group were in talks with NUI Galway's HR department to try and get better terms and conditions.

They say: "Our contracts with NUI Galway came out, it's called the Postgraduate Guidelines, and they are expecting us to do 120 hours of unpaid work, over the course of the PhD." 

One of the problems with this, according to Sarah, is that each department interprets these guidelines differently. 

Some include preparation hours and grading, while others view it as 120 hours of in-person teaching.

NUI Galway said that they had implemented standardised guidelines for research students, but that they "do permit for variation within units (programmes/schools/colleges etc) on some aspects".

In terms of the 120 unpaid working hours, NUIG said the guidelines state that normally, where the programme length is four years, all PhD students should make 'contributions' over six semesters or three academic years to cognate academic programmes, without extra payment.

"However, funded students must comply with the terms of any funding award. [The hours] are subject to a maximum of 120 hours per year."

NUIG said that "quite a wide range of activities" may be included and that they vary according to school and discipline norms.

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