Working but no workers' rights: the plight of the PhD revealed
Unpaid ‘teaching contributions’ expected in most universities and ITs but PhD candidates can’t get ‘a liveable wage’.
“LOW STIPENDS AND unpaid teaching have left PhDs in a position where they should feel grateful to have any funding at all which isn’t fair.”
Laura Murphy is a PhD student in Trinity and part of the PhD Workers Rights Group who are campaigning for workers rights for PhD students across Ireland.
Murphy said that this “prevalent attitude” in higher education institutions (HEIs) is as a result of the lack of funding available. Low levels of funding for universities after the crash in 2008 meant that they “became creative”, according to the PhD researcher.
The funding bodies and Department of Higher Education need to understand the toll this is having on PhD students, explained Murphy. “With the cost of living rising, it’s going to become harder and harder for people to do PhDs unless they’re from a more privileged background and can afford to do it.”
Murphy said this is not only having an impact on the mental health and financial stability of early career researchers but also can lead to diminishing the research outputs and the benefits to the economy due to the “increasing amount of time put into working other jobs [in order] to afford the PhD”.
She is in receipt of one of the “higher stipends” and has done both unpaid teaching in her department as well as paid teaching in another department to “get enough money to live in Dublin”.
Noteworthy has spent the last six months gathering the experiences of academics and researchers working in third-level institutions.
Yesterday, part one revealed that short-term contracts and instability of employment are rife across the sector and part two explored how precarious work is having an impact on diversity in HEIs. Today, we delve into ongoing campaigns by postgraduate researchers for workers rights.
Most of the problems that the PhD Workers Rights Group have encountered centre around “the fact PhDs don’t have a liveable wage” which, according to Murphy, became a big issue at the height of the housing and rental crisis. She said this is because, though rents have increased in recent years, some PhD stipends have remained static.
For instance, Noteworthy has a copy of an advertisement from 2007 for a funded PhD in the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin with a stipend of €18,000 per annum. This month, the same institute advertised for a PhD position with an annual stipend of €18,500, a 3% increase in over more than a decade.
When the issues of payment of PhDs for teaching and stipend funding was put to a spokesperson for the university, they did not answer this query.
‘Issues solved’ with workers’ rights
Stipends are tax-free payments that PhD students receive, normally paid on a monthly basis from the HEI they are based in. PhD scholarships and funding vary between HEIs and funding bodies, though some students complete a PhD with just a fee waiver from the institution or no funding at all.
The most recent Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship Programme 2020 offered a stipend of €16,000 per annum as well as a contribution to fees and research expenses. The Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) policy on budget allocation states that it funds student stipends “at a flat rate of €18,500 per annum for up to four years”.
PhD stipends vary not only within institutions but also between HEIs. Stipends awarded as part of Trinity’s scholarships range from €13,000 to €20,000 per year. Waterford IT launched a number of scholarships last year which awarded a stipend of €12,000.
During the course of this investigation, Noteworthy also spoke to a PhD student on an IT scholarship of less than €10,000 per year which, as a mature student with a family, they had to supplement with work outside of their research and unpaid teaching contribution of three hours per week.
Taking the Irish Research Council stipend of €16,000, this equates to just over €1,300 per month or €300 per week. If PhD researchers work a 40-hour week, this is €7.70 per hour. The current minimum wage is €10.10 per hour and the living wage is €12.30. However, these figures are normally not used in the context of PhD students as they are not classed as workers in Ireland.
In addition to an increase in stipends, Murphy said that postgraduate researchers have raised a number of other issues and they “quickly realised that all of these would be solved with workers’ rights”, explained Murphy. “That’s not a brand new idea as there are countries in Europe where PhDs are not considered students, they are workers.”
This is the case in Sweden where “PhD students are treated like full employees” with a “salary and other standard benefits of employment”, according to Stockholm University’s website.
In the Swedish system, PhD students are hired for four years of full-time employment and the salary increases as you progress. At Stockholm University, this starts at €2,575 (SEK 26,500) and increases up to €2,850 (SEK 29,300) per month.
That is a salary range of €31,000 to €34,000, which is approximately €24,500 to €27,000 after tax, when inputted into a Swedish tax calculator.
In Mercer’s 2020 Cost of Living Survey which included rental accommodation costs, Dublin ranked 46th and was the most expensive city in the eurozone. In comparison, Stockholm ranked 133th of the 200 cities surveyed, so is a significantly cheaper city to live in, yet PhD students receive more income on a monthly basis.
Action over unpaid teaching
There are a number of other groups that have recently started campaigning on this issue. Postgraduate researchers in NUI Galway are also campaigning to be recognised as workers and to be paid for the annual 120 hours teaching contribution they are normally expected to undertake at the university.
In September, they sent a letter to the President of NUI Galway as well as the Minister for Higher Education and Research, Simon Harris, which stated: “The arrangements whereby postgraduates carry out teaching or related academic duties is exploitative and unjust during ‘normal’ times, and this unfairness is even more palpable given postgraduates are now expected to carry out these duties on the front lines of a global pandemic.”
PhD students can now be “allocated alternate forms of teaching contribution” during Covid-19 if they are “not in a position to undertake an on-campus teaching contribution”, according to a notice on NUI Galway’s website.
However, Shane O’Connell from the Postgraduate Workers Alliance in NUI Galway felt that unpaid teaching “is unethical”. Their “goal is to abolish the 120 hours of teaching contributions”.
From a university perspective, he said “there have been nothing but working groups set up”. His expectations of anything coming out of these is low.
On the NUI Galway website, under the heading ‘Why are we still not paying our postgraduate students for the contributions that they make to teaching?’, it states:
Our research degree guidelines state [that] normally all PhD students make contributions of a maximum of 120 hours per year (approximately 5 hours per week over 24 weeks) over three academic years, without extra payment… This is the norm for the sector.
A spokesperson for the university said that this guideline “has been in place since prior to the recession”. They added that the university “recently established a working group on ‘Contract Research Staff: Employment and Career Progression’ that is tasked with reviewing representation of research staff, amongst other issues, on committees”.
We also put to NUI Galway that PhD researchers are calling to be paid for these hours and asked if they intend to pay them for this in the future or work with the Postgraduate Workers Alliance on these issues. The university did not answer this query.
The hourly rate for tutorials in NUI Galway on the lowest point of the scale is €24.36, according to their ‘Hourly Paid Teaching Staff Timesheet’ so five hours equates to €121.80 per week. This equates to almost €2,923.20 worth of work per PhD student per year, dependent on the amount of preparation time included in the allotted hours.
O’Connell, who has PhD funding from a new SFI Centre for Research Training, said that although he feels very supported in his Department, his experience of unpaid teaching “hasn’t been good at all”.
Last year, during his first year of his PhD he put together tutorials for a module from scratch and spent a lot more than 120 hours on this work. “I basically didn’t get any research done for a good two months.” He also knows of other people who gave lectures which required a “massive amount of preparation”.
Action being considered by the alliance, according to O’Connell, are striking or refusing to carry out unpaid teaching.
In a response to a parliamentary question on this issue by RISE TD Paul Murphy at the start of October, Minister Harris said “the management of their academic affairs, including the delivery of their courses are matters for the individual institutions” but “encouraged both sides to engage to resolve this matter”. Harris continued:
“Contributing to teaching is an integral part of the training of a research Master’s or PhD student. Teaching contribution assists in the acquisition of generic and transferable skills, as described in the National Framework for Doctoral Education and in the PhD Graduate Skills Statement from the Irish Universities Association.”
Up to six hours teaching in some HEIs
Through freedom of information (FOI) requests, we asked every university and institutes of technology (IT) for the number of PhD students teaching, supervising or conducting other activities such as tutorials with no monetary compensation or as part of a condition of their PhD funding.
The full breakdown of information we obtained via FOI, is available here:
Click here to view this searchable table in a different window.
Athlone IT has a requirement of “two hours tutoring (per week) as part of their monthly stipend”, with any additional hours paid. An AIT spokesperson cited a survey from 2019 which found that 71% of postgraduates taught, with 67% agreeing that this enhanced their experience.
GMIT and Waterford IT have similar policies to AIT, linked to scholarships or fee waivers. As does Limerick IT but a spokesperson said that “it is not a common practice at LIT for teaching or supervision to be conducted without monetary compensation”.
TU Dublin was the only university that provided any data to Noteworthy on this part of our FOI request, with the City campus stating that PhD scholarship funding did not have a condition of teaching or supervising.
A spokesperson for DCU said that “there are no records” because “PhD students are not categorised as staff”. A similar answer was given, through FOI, by the remaining other universities.
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We followed up with these HEIs through press requests. DCU and UL had similar policies, with exceptions for certain students. DCU puts “a cap of six hours per week in a semester” for substantial scholarship recipients, while in Limerick “up to six unpaid contact hours per week” may be required.
No further information was provided by Trinity College, NUI Galway and UCD. Maynooth University and UCC both said they have PhD students engaged in teaching but no expected hours were specified to Noteworthy.
Problems caused by ‘unclear relationship’
One issue that faces PhDs is the fact that since they are not recognised as workers in Ireland, unions have no power to negotiate or collectively bargain with HEIs on their behalf. SIPTU’s education sector organiser Karl Byrne explained that this was because “the Employment Rights Act is dependent on you being an employee” but PhD researchers are classed as students in Ireland.
However, SIPTU has been supporting them over the past year through the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), according to Byrne. He said it is important as PhD students are at the “bottom of the precarity pyramid – where it all starts”.
As mentioned in part one of this investigation, universities are developing a Researcher Careers and Employment Framework which has been lauded as addressing some of these researcher employment issues. This will be published before the end of the year, according to the Irish Universities Association (IUA) who represent all universities in Ireland, except TU Dublin.
When Noteworthy asked the Department of Education about the ongoing campaigns by PhDs in universities across Ireland, a spokesperson said that “PhD students, in addition to conducting research, participate in other activities to develop generic and transferable skills”. They added:
“In circumstances where issues arise relating to teaching duties of postgraduate students… all parties should engage constructively in the interest of securing balanced solutions.”
TCD’s Murphy wants unions to get behind PhD researchers to recognise that they deserve workers’ rights. “The point is that we don’t want to be viewed as students. We deserve to be viewed as workers.”
For now, she said the PhD Workers Right Group in Trinity are talking to the group in NUI Galway as well as another in UCD. They want to “agree on a set of national demands to have a unified approach” which she hopes will happen in the New Year.
The other parts of our ACADEMIC UNCERTAINTY investigation are out now. Part one revealed that short-term contracts and instability of employment are rife across the sector and part two explored how precarious work is having an impact on diversity in HEIs.
This investigation was carried out by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers.
You can support the huge volume of additional work required over the past number of months because of the time consuming FOI requests by supporting the Noteworthy general fund or giving the gift of investigative journalism to a loved one this Christmas.
Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>