Tax exemption policy highlights contradiction of postgraduate student status

Correspondence from the Revenue commission implies that current conditions do not technically exempt many PhD researchers from tax, given their role

Leaked correspondence regarding the Revenue Commission’s policy on tax exemptions for PhD researchers has highlighted the contradiction in postgraduates’ categorisation as students rather than workers.

Jeffrey Sardina, a member of the national committee of the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO), was told that in order to be exempt from tax, PhD stipends, which are categorised as scholarships, “must be held by a person receiving full-time instruction at a university, college, school or other educational establishment”.

Sardina highlighted that as a postgraduate researcher, “I do not receive any instruction at my university, adding that his research “is mostly self-guided”.

Revenue emphasised a condition of the tax exemption that “the object of the scholarship must be the promotion of the education of the holder rather than the promotion of research through the holder.”

Sardina said: “The primary purpose of me as a PhD is to do research. I am evaluated and brought into the university entirely to produce my own research. I do not take classes or have routine formal instruction.”

“Since the output of a PhD is a thesis containing my research findings, I would think that the output of this programme is explicitly for the promotion of my research,” he added.

In a press statement yesterday, Sardina said that he had been required to sign a Scholarship Exemption Declaration Form, exempting him from paying taxes on his stipend of €18.5k, provided by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Despite this, Sardina continued, the conditions of his role were “not at all” similar to those declared in the exemption form, and that it was given to him “under false pretences by Trinity College and by SFI”.

“As a result, Revenue has told me that this exemption does not apply to me, therefore mandating that I pay over 1k extra in taxes out of a budget that is already 22% below minimum wage because of the false pretences under which I was accepted into my PhD programme. This seeming deception is grossly unacceptable.”

Sardina added: “Revenue’s claim that I do not qualify as a student is in line with what I have believed for a long time – my primary function as a PhD [candidate] is to generate intellectual property for my college through research and to teach.”

“In fact, as a PhD [candidate], I do not take classes or receive full-time instruction. And ultimately, if I am not a student, and I pay taxes, then legally I must be classified as a worker – with at least minimum wage, a legal contract, and full workers’ rights.”

The discrepancy between the Revenue policy and the reality for PhD researchers further highlights the contradiction of postgraduates being denied worker status.

As students, postgraduates are not entitled to minimum wage or employment benefits for their work, with the highest PhD in Ireland stipend being around €19,000, around 20% below minimum wage.

The PWO have said that many would prefer to pay tax as it would entitle them to tax credits such as the rental assistance in last year’s budget, but that liveable pay must be guaranteed.

In his statement, Sardina said: “This situation must change now – living 22% below minimum wage, plus taxes, for no workers’ rights is a gross violation of my rights. However, this is the established policy of Trinity, SFI, and the Irish government.”

“This entire event is reminiscent of a system so fundamentally broken that I am required to pay for the “right” to work – with no workers’ rights.”

Sardina is currently running for the position of Vice-President for Postgraduate Affairs in the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

He is a co-founder and former president of the PhD’s Collective Action Union (PCAU) from which the PWO was formed following a merger.

This article was updated on 31 March to correct a misspelling of a subjects surname. Trinity News apologises for the error.

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.