“Without change, Irish research is going to die”: The unions fighting for PhD workers’ rights

The PCAU and PGWA, which recently announced plans to merge, tell Trinity News of their fight for employment rights and fair treatment

Eoghan Ross feels that positive change for PhD researchers is inevitable: “It’s either that or Irish research is just going to die.”

Nevertheless, inevitability has not made the challenges facing postgraduate workers’ unions any less real. “It’s definitely been difficult,” Ross says. “The workload that you have doing a PhD is already very, very high, and adding this sort of stuff on top, it can put a strain on you at times. But when you believe in something, you’re willing to put that extra bit of work in.”

Ross is vice-chair of the Trinity branch of the Postgraduate Workers Alliance of Ireland (PGWAI), an organisation formed in 2019 by local branches from University College Dublin (UCD) and the University of Galway to advocate for PhD researchers. Since then, another local group has been established in University College Cork (UCC), with groups in numerous other universities currently in the process of establishing themselves.

Although at the time TCD PGWA was founded, Trinity had an existing, fully-funded Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), it was felt that this and other students’ unions tended to focus on masters and taught postgraduate courses, rather than PhDs and researchers.

“What we needed in terms of representation is very different from what they could provide”, Ross says. As a result, the GSU tended to act more as a support network rather than a campaign group, a function which PhD workers felt sorely in need of.

Kyle Hamilton, president of the PhD’s Collective Action Union (PCAU) echoes this feeling: “There isn’t the kind of support that we need within the students’ unions.”

PCAU was founded last summer by Jeffrey Sardina, in response to a government announcement of a limited number of €28,000 stipends for PhD researchers, which the group felt was “incredibly unfair”. Sardina served as president until last November, when he and then-vice president Hamilton swapped roles.

Hamilton says that she “wasn’t aware” of PGWAI when she joined PCAU, highlighting that “a lot of postgraduate researchers are not aware that these groups exist,” a fact which she feels both groups must work to change.

Nonetheless, there has been constant communication and collaboration between the groups. Matt Murtagh, Data Officer of PCAU, points to a joint protest outside the Dáil on Budget Day which was attended by both groups, as well as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). “From day one, it’s been about cooperation and working together towards a common goal,” Murtagh says.

Likewise, the two unions have similar priorities and demands. Of chief importance for both is the issue of employment status for PhD researchers; the recognition that they are workers and deserving of the full protection of employment law. Other items on the agenda include a living wage, proper working conditions, and the equitable treatment of non-EU researchers.

In December, PCAU launched the Fair Postgraduate Researchers’ Agreement (FRA), in response to the current government review of state supports for PhD researchers, with a list of eight demands.

As well as those mentioned above, the FRA also calls for anti-discrimination measures for postgraduate workers, provision of any equipment necessary for their role, the right to work in Ireland for spouses and children of non-EU researchers, and adequate supervisory arrangements. The FRA received formal support from PGWAI as well as USI and a number of other students’ unions.

The document was drafted by the PCAU Executive and amended based on feedback and submissions from members of the union. It is an impressive five-page document with eight detailed sections outlining demands, and an appendix including “suggested rates of pay for additional services”, including teaching assistance, lecturing, and marking. It is comprehensive in detail, and its language specific and legislative, reflecting the union’s hopes that substantive change will come about from the government review.

“We really feel that it represents what people need,” Hamilton says. Having been signed off by the Executive, the FRA was sent to over 300 stakeholders, including TDs, Senators, and higher education officials.

“You would expect the Department of Higher Education would be aware of all elements of higher education, but there were a lot of unknowns.”

It is PGWAI however who have had the more direct contact with government. As well the opposition parties, the group have met with Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science Simon Harris as well as members of the Green Party.

“It was indicative that they knew there was an issue but they didn’t know what the issues were,” Ross says of the meetings. “You would expect the Department of Higher Education would be aware of all elements of higher education, but there were a lot of unknowns…the degree to which it wasn’t known was surprising.”

Having also met with education spokespeople from opposition parties, Hamilton concurs that “it’s a little bit embarrassing that people who are involved in higher education don’t know these basic things”.

Despite gathering over 4,500 signatures on a letter requesting a meeting with Harris, the PCAU have not yet been given such an opportunity. Hamilton muses that having met with the PGWA, meeting with “the postgraduates” may be viewed as a box ticked by Harris’ office.

Nonetheless, both groups agree that the creation of a separate department for higher education has been beneficial for their cause. Its combination with the ministerial portfolio for research and innovation has also been advantageous, Ross argues, as it’s now a single department advocating for improvement in Irish research, while simultaneously “chokeholding” it by preventing researchers from becoming qualified to carry it out. The amalgamation has allowed for a convergence of incentives which makes progress for postgraduate workers’ rights all the more achievable.

“The existence of the Department of Further and Higher Education has created a narrower, less crowded target for direct lobbying.”

Murtagh notes that the separation of higher education from the Department of Education, responsible for primary and secondary schools, has made lobbying much easier: “If it had still been in the Department of Education, we’d be fighting with a lot of really well established and really well funded unions in order to get face time with Norman Foley.”

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) indeed dwarf both postgraduate unions combined in both size and influence, regularly holding strike actions and negotiating with government. The existence of the Department of Further and Higher Education has created a narrower, less crowded target for direct lobbying.

At least that was the case until recently. In December, Harris took on the role of Minister for Justice alongside his higher education duties.

“I worry that the work that we’re doing will be put on the back burner,” says Hamilton. “I don’t know how it is that ministers can have two really significant roles like that at the same time… I’d say that that’s almost a conflict of interest, because where do you spend your time?”

Despite the obstacles, the organisations have seen change begin to come about. “Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a very big change in the dialogue that you see publicly around it,” Ross says.

The notion many mistakenly hold that a PhD is like any other degree — sitting in lectures and completing assignments, with plenty of time off in between — is changing. Ross adds that many politicians have stopped using the word student when referring to PhD workers, and started using the word researcher, a crucial step.

While negotiating within academic departments and lobbying universities is necessary along the way, the necessity for change goes right to the top at the state level: “Fundamentally, it is the government where we do need to see that change. If they are not willing to provide the funding and the appropriate resources and approaches to these issues, there is only so much that the universities themselves are able to do.”

“The general underfunding of higher education has left universities themselves facing crises.”

Ultimately it is a question of funding, and “very little funding for PhDs comes from the university,” according to Ross. “The largest single body for providing that funding would be the state through the likes of the IRC [Irish Research Council], SFI [Science Foundation Ireland], and various other research fellowships.”

In fact, the general underfunding of higher education has left universities themselves facing crises. Because of inadequate student to teacher ratios within departments, universities rely on PhD researchers to provide teaching in order to fulfil responsibilities to undergraduate students, a situation which is wholly dissatisfactory to all involved.

Finally, Hamilton adds, aside from the critical issue of funding, it is government who holds the power over legislation surrounding the issues and the employment status of PhD researchers; as such, they are the ultimate arbiters of the fate of PhD research, and must be lobbied.

Prompted on the partnership between the two unions, Hamilton reveals plans to merge in the near future: “We’ve had several meetings on exactly how that’s going to happen, but it is happening.”

Ross elaborates on ongoing communication with SIPTU, Ireland’s largest general workers’ union, with whose affiliation the groups intend to establish their joint union, citing USI as their model for a “union within a union”.

“We’re still going to be our own body within SIPTU, but they will be our backing,” indicating that SIPTU will provide much of the bargaining power which postgraduate workers’ seek for their cause.

“We can only keep pushing, and I think the role of our organisations is to make it happen sooner rather than later.”

Representatives from both groups conclude on an optimistic note. “I’m positive because historically Ireland has always placed education as a priority… hopefully that will continue, and [for] research as well,” Hamilton says.

She points to the aspirations of Impact 2030, a government programme aiming to address grand challenges such as climate change and public health through research and innovation: “For those things to happen, the system has to improve.”

“We can only keep pushing, and I think the role of our organisations is to make it happen sooner rather than later.”

Both groups give the overall impression that conditions for PhD workers’ are too fraught with contradictions to continue for much longer. If government seeks to prioritise research and innovation, and most signs indicate that they do, then PhD research must be a more viable and more sustainable path than it currently is. Likewise, if universities wish to provide quality teaching and learning to undergraduates who will become the next generation of researchers and innovators, an overreliance on undercompensated PhD workers must also change. As Ross highlights, while government knows there to be a problem, it is uncertain about how exactly to go about fixing it. It can only be hoped that the current review of PhD supports begins a process of proper recognition and adequate support for PhD workers – one that guarantees them employee status, livable pay, and fair treatment; “it’s either that or Irish research is just going to die.”

Originally published in print on January 31.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is the current Social Media and Managing Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as News Editor, Assistant News Editor and copyeditor.