“It’s a fundamentally exploitative system here”: Inside the ongoing struggle for postgraduate rights

An in-depth look into the testing postgraduate experience in Ireland

“We are all hurt by the system, not everyone in the same way.” This is the harsh reality of postgraduate study according to Seathrún (Jeffrey) Sardina, chair of Trinity College Dublin’s branch of the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO). Speaking to Trinity News about the daily challenges for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) in Ireland, he and his fellow peers voiced their frustration at the piecemeal progress both the government and the College itself have made towards urgently needed reform. 

Recently, the movement has come out in full force, with on-campus protests becoming a fixture of college life. Postgraduate discontent was also a dominant issue during the TCDSU Hustings. Such activism has been given renewed impetus by the merger of the PhD’s Collective Action Union (PCAU) – of which Seathrún is a co-founder – and the Postgraduate Workers Alliance (PGWA) under the new name of the Postgraduate Workers Organisation (PWO) earlier this year. PWO President for Ireland, Conor Reddy, stated that with “nearly 25% of all PhD researchers in the state recruited by the union, it puts us right up there with all the other unions in the sector”. 

The Campaign for Employee Status

At the heart of the PWO’s campaign is their ongoing struggle to attain basic, yet crucial rights for postgraduate researchers; most critically, employee status and with that, a minimum liveable wage. Without contractual standing, Seathrún states that PGRs have “no guaranteed protections. We don’t have maternity leave, paternity leave, sick leave or any guaranteed vacation time.”

PWO member and TCDSU Postgraduate Representative, Matt Murtagh-White, underlined the dangers of such a vulnerable position, asserting that these rights are instead predominantly granted or withheld at the discretion of their supervisor. He states that “from our own data, 80% of PhD researchers in Trinity don’t have contracts,” meaning that there are no concrete terms outlining what is expected of them, or basic entitlements such as a regular pay schedule. 

The lack of a codified employment status places postgraduates at serious risk of exploitation. “A lot of departments can just make this up as they go along,” Matt says, emphasising that their primary objective is simply to gain “minimum regulations enforced in a contract”. 

“The core functions of the university are dependent on us being here.”

The chief justifications for the demand of employee status are the wide range of responsibilities these researchers have, and the type of work they produce. In particular, the requirement to teach has become a primary area where a lack of clarity on the part of the College has led to numerous unchecked and problematic practices. Inconsistency over the allocation of claimable hours has exacerbated the strain on these researchers as they battle to both teach effectively and focus on their own research.

“The liminal space occupied by PGRs between research and teaching exposes the flaws of a system that continues to regard them as students.”

In Trinity’s School of Computer Science and Statistics, Seathrún found he was unable to claim approximately €400 for the hours spent in teaching preparation, as the means by which to do so were not made clear to him until it was too late. Matt meanwhile estimated that of the 36 teaching hours College had allotted and remunerated him for, he had also spent almost 70 extra hours in unpaid preparation time for that same term.  

The liminal space occupied by PGRs between research and teaching exposes the flaws of a system that continues to regard them as students. “At almost every meeting, you hear something dreadful… about horrible kinds of exploitation,” PWO President Conor says, including “people doing unpaid teaching on a mandatory basis”. This is exacerbated by the fact that PGRs are often assigned to teach modules on areas in which they lack in-depth knowledge of, inevitably leading to a decline in teaching standards. Seathrún himself expressed his disappointment at this flawed arrangement, admitting that for one module he felt he was “actually learning with the class the entire time”. Yet, he emphasises that this was a position he was forced into between the “lack of pay, the lack of notice and the lack of flexibility”, adding that “I did the best I could, but my best wasn’t what the students deserved.”

“There’s a greater dependence on PhDs as a source of cheap labour.”

The work involved in a PhD is also vital to achieving a university’s research mission. PGRs independently undertake knowledge creation and produce intellectual property for their university. Their output is printed in research publications which largely determine a university’s place in the global league tables. As Seathrún explained, Trinity’s recent hike to 81st place in this year’s QS World University Rankings was in fact “done on the back of PhD exploitation”. Conor agreed, encapsulating the contradiction by stating that  “the core functions of the university are dependent on us being here… there’s a greater dependence on PhDs as a source of cheap labour.” 

Conflict with Revenue  

Despite the nature of their work, PGRs continue to be classed as students. Conor explained that when people start their PhDs, they are usually required to sign a waiver with Revenue to exempt them from taxation. This is to confirm that postgraduate researchers are under full-time instruction (in order to exclude them from being deemed as employees). However, when a number of his members from across the country in different disciplines contacted Revenue to describe what their average working day entailed, “it was Revenue’s opinion at the time that what we do is work… it doesn’t qualify us from those exemptions that we sign at the start of our PhD. So what we’re doing on a grand scale is I guess tax fraud.”

In the current economic climate, as the cost-of-living crisis imposes financial pressure on many researchers, the desire for monetary security, social benefits, and employee rights is intensifying. With the current PhD annual stipend averaging at €18,500, around 20% below minimum wage, Conor has labelled Ireland as an “outlier” in Europe. He cited the example of the employee model in Nordic countries, where a researcher is on a “fixed-term contract for four years” and can be “earning up to €55,000 a year by the end”, to highlight Ireland’s failure to “move with the times”.

Consequently, the PWO are calling for a stipend increase to at least €28,000, with other demands including a maximum 48-hour working week, health coverage, and union representation. 

The recent National Review of Supports for PhDs released in June under Minister of Higher Education Simon Harris TD, which sought to address some of these issues, was heavily criticised by the PWO. Despite the report recommending an increase of the minimum stipend to €25,000, the lack of clarity over who or how these postgraduates would receive it, as well as the Minister’s failure to effectively respond to the issue of employee status, led the PWO to label the report as “thoroughly underwhelming” with “tepid recommendations”. Seathrún emphasised that a fundamental problem is that the “report was done not through a ‘rights first’ point of view, but really through a ‘status quo economics and money first’ point of view, even when the system they are promoting is actively exploiting people”.

Another Irish Brain-Drain? 

A further chief objection to the report is its failure to recommend specific changes to the visa or immigration status of Non-EEA/EU PhDs, a large cohort in Ireland who are significantly disadvantaged economically as a result of a host of extra charges. Costs associated with visas, Irish Residency Permits, mandatory health insurance and other additional expenses can sink these researchers’ stipend even further below minimum wage. In addition to these strains, Conor also stated that as Non-EEA/EU researchers, you have “no right to bring your spouse… nor for your spouse to work if they come here while you’re doing your PhD”. He added, “if we were employees, all of those rights would be granted.” Conor’s words were supported by Matt’s, who advised non-EU PGRs to look to continental Europe instead, telling them that “you’ll be treated a lot better”.  

“Many of them are telling their friends ‘don’t come to Ireland.’

The implications of these extra burdens must also be considered in relation to life after academia. With an already competitive graduate job market, Ireland is at risk of losing out to countries with greater PGR protections, particularly when it comes to international researchers, whose time in Ireland does not currently count towards their eligibility for residency. “We will train up this amazing talent” Seathrún states, “[but] there’s no ability to get onto a work visa [from the PhD alone] so it’s really hard for them to stay and a lot of people leave… many of them are telling their friends ‘don’t come to Ireland’”.

An Unworkable Environment

The added stress of working within an apparatus that does not prioritise the well-being of researchers is plain. When asked about the difficulties of college life and the often isolating nature of a PhD researcher’s university experience in relation to undergraduates, Matt stated that these issues “definitely add an extra emotional strain that I wasn’t really expecting. I really would love to just be able to focus purely on my research, but there is this huge additional kind of weight on top of it I have to deal with.”

Seathrún also described the pressures placed on those at the forefront of the campaign, pointing to the time when he leaked an exchange to The Irish Times about the contradictory response from Revenue regarding the existing tax exemptions for PGRs. Despite the support he received for the PWO’s goals, he stated that this was a “really scary thing to do. To put yourself forward so publicly that way… I had quite a bit of worked-up anxiety about this for quite a while.” 

Lack of College Postgraduate Representation 

Although these issues are being voiced on major platforms, it seems that at Trinity, these researchers still feel that their concerns are not being properly represented. With TCD’s Graduate Student Union (GSU) formally de-recognised last year due to multiple unresolved administrative issues, this body has been replaced with temporary Postgraduate College Committee Representatives within the TCDSU. Matt, who holds three out of the nine Officer positions on this Committee, still considers postgraduate representation to be “very lacking”, especially as there “isn’t as direct a line to much of the college leadership for postgraduates as there should be”.

Seathrún suggests that one possible reason for the lack of open communication between College and postgraduates — particularly the PWO — is because “the College does not want to legitimise us… We have a huge membership rate at Trinity,” and consequently, he argues, “as soon as they accept us as legitimate, they have to start negotiating, accepting, talking to us, and that is something they don’t want.”

The situation could be improved by the College’s recent endorsement of a proposal to consolidate the University’s three internal postgraduate research schemes and increase their associated stipends to €25,000 by September. This change was brought forward as part of the Postgraduate Renewal Programme, which aims to revive postgraduate education at Trinity. Yet, as Seathrún notes, this improvement only affects “around 15% of all students in Trinity”, with the increase of the stipend limited to just three of Trinity’s postgraduate awards. In Matt’s eyes, this programme is being “used as kind of a red herring for meaningful reform”. 

“The likelihood of the first nation-wide postgraduate strike is quickly becoming a hard reality.

The chief issues which have yet to be addressed include the lack of mediatory structures for supervisor issues, workers’ rights, and limited workspaces for PGRs. The latter problem was further inflamed when it was declared by Trinity that part of the space in the newly conserved Rubrics Building was to be given to “retired academic colleagues”.

In spite of the limited progress in College, these postgraduate union members’ dedication to the cause shows no signs of faltering. With their movement able to galvanise a critical mass of support, the likelihood of the first nation-wide postgraduate strike is quickly becoming a hard reality. According to Seathrún, using strike action in order to “change the tone of these conversations” has been discussed by the PWO at length. When asked  whether he would bring his members out on strike, Conor responded in the affirmative: “absolutely… it is the strongest possible weapon that we have in our arsenal… Any union is only as good as its ability to strike, its ability to take collective action… that is where our leverage is. Our leverage is that we do the essential work in the university.”

Rose Slocock

Rose Slocock is a Deputy Features Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History.