A go-slow protest by PhD students in the School of Chemistry has been brought to an end this week after a proposed cut to their hourly demonstrating rate was shelved on Friday. Students resumed full teaching responsibility on Monday after an executive meeting of the school concluded that further discussions with postgraduate students are needed on the matter.
Postgraduate students had undertaken to only correct lab reports for paid hours, with any unmarked reports being left until the following week, after being told in early September that their demonstrating pay was to be reduced from €17.50 to €15.00 an hour. The decision was communicated to John Carey, the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) school representative, at a meeting with the head of school and director of postgraduate teaching and learning.
Postgraduate students refused to accept the cut, feeling that they could not keep up the standard of correcting expected by the school on a reduced rate, Carey told Trinity News. “The demonstrating pay was reduced from €22.50 to €17.50 two years ago and a further reduction made the postgraduates feel that they were taking the burden of the cuts, and dissatisfied with further cuts to the demonstrating rate,” he said in a statement. “The number of undergraduate students was also significantly increasing from previous years, resulting in a large number of lab reports to correct.”
Carey told Trinity News that the proposed cut had “added to the frustration of the postgraduates, as the demonstrators only get paid one hour per week for correcting, regardless of the number of lab sessions they look after.” On average per week, he said, “a demonstrator could have two lab session (6 hours) consisting of around 20 students to look after, and around 40 reports to correct on a weekly basis.” This can “easily take around 5 hours of correcting per week (perhaps more depending on the lab difficulty), which greatly impacts their research commitments and personal lives,” he told Trinity News.
The cut was proposed after a school executive meeting in June confirmed that the School of Chemistry’s non-budget pay from the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science (FEMS) would be reduced by 42%. While the level of demonstrating pay will be protected for this semester, the proposed cut may still be implemented next term, Carey told Trinity News.
Trinity News understands that a similar action is now being considered by postgraduate students in the School of Physics, which stopped paying teaching assistants in 2010.
In a statement to Trinity News, Prof. Louise Bradley, the school’s director of postgraduate teaching and learning, acknowledged that PhD students are not directly compensated for teaching responsibilities, but said that they receive a minimum stipend of €16,000 per annum for four years. “Where possible this is paid from the research grants of the individual staff members but if that funding ended or did not cover the full fees or stipend the School of Physics has been filling the gap,” she said. “We have over 100 postgraduate students in the school and the school has been providing significant direct funding to students in this way.” If the school were to pay students for teaching hours, “it would create enormous financial difficulties for a significant number of students who would have to pay their own fees and may lose their full stipend,” she added.
“Schools are largely independent when it comes to the allotment of their resources, notably with regards to lab assistance,” Megan Lee, GSU president, told Trinity News when asked about the issue of non-payment for postgraduate teaching responsibilities. “There is something to be said about the discrepancy in pay affecting PhD students, but different budgetary constraints also have to be taken into account.”
Illustration: Nadia Bertaud