By Conor Brummell
News and Current Affairs Editor
The Postgraduate Workers Alliance Group in NUI Galway have penned and signed an open letter to the University Management Team to better work conditions for PHD candidates in the University.
The open letter, addressed to the President of NUI Galway Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, was also sent to the Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation Simon Harris and Dean of Graduate Studies in NUI Galway, Professor Dónal Leech.
The letter was penned in protest of the fact that the University is asking postgraduate workers to do 120 hours of unpaid teaching throughout the course of the year, with no remuneration despite the fact that they will be putting themselves in classrooms during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” the letter states.
“When we accepted scholarships to carry out our research at NUI Galway, we signed a declaration to the Revenue Commissioners that, to the best of our knowledge, there would be “no element of service (directly or indirectly) between the sponsor and I or between the colleges/university and I.”
“Carrying out unpaid teaching work would represent a breach of this declaration.”
NUI Galway is a signatory of the European Researchers Charter, which includes the statement that “employers and/or funders should ensure that teaching duties are adequately remunerated.”
By requesting that postgraduate workers do unpaid work, the University would be in breach of this charter, according to the PWAG.
“In light of these concerns that have yet to be adequately dealt with by the University, we have no option but to make it clear that we do not recognise any expectation of unpaid work as legitimate.”
“Consequently, as postgraduate workers at NUI Galway, we hereby declare our intention to refuse to carry out any work which is not remunerated at the existing collectively bargained rate,” the letter concludes.
The open letter is accompanied by a petition addressed to Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, demanding that the unfair working conditions faced by postgraduate workers be resolved as soon as possible.
At the time of writing, the petition had reached 415 signatures out of its 500-signature goal.
According to the guidelines for Research Degree programmes, where a programme is four years in length, “All PhD students should make contributions over six semesters or three academic years to cognate academic programmes, without extra payment.”
It also states that, “Funded students must comply with the terms of any funding award. It is subject to a maximum of 120 hours per year.”
Dean of Graduate Studies Donál Leech has disputed the PWAG’s arguments, disagreeing with claims that postgraduate students are being exploited by the university.
“I disagree that postgraduate students are being exploited at this time. There is no change to our research degree guidelines during Covid-19, apart from issuance by me of guidance on how teaching contributions may be allocated within units (Schools, disciplines etc) during Covid-19.”
“This guidance required that no research supervisor or line manager will be expected to impel a research student to undertake an on-campus teaching contribution. Research students that are allocated teaching contribution should be supported to deliver the teaching contribution, whether on-campus or remotely.” he stated.
While acknowledging potential issues regarding oversight surrounding teaching contributions Leech noted that the Department are collaborating with the colleges and Student’s Union Representatives to address the problems.
“There is a long-standing issue on oversight of teaching contribution by research students, and whether all units adhere to our guidelines. I am collaborating with the Colleges and SU representatives on mechanisms within our governance structures to address this.”
He also claimed there was inaccuracies in the open letter sent by the PGWA.
“I note that there are inaccuracies in the PGWA open letter and in the petition. I do not know ‘who’ PGWA are, as there is no individual signature in correspondence from the PGWA.”.
“I do not have the authority to interact with any other representative body, such as a union or alliance, in my role as Dean of Graduate Studies.”.
Sarah Carter, a PhD candidate in the school of Engineering in NUI Galway, is one of the signatories of the open letter and she feels as though there is a problem on how the University interprets the guidelines for PhD research.
“There is no consistent application of teaching hours across the board- they are interpreted differently by different departments,” she told SIN.
“Some people have it in their contracts that they must do teaching, and others don’t. Some schools have it that candidates must do a minimum of 120 hours, others state they must do a maximum of 120 and some say that candidates must do exactly 120 hours of teaching. It depends on where someone gets the funding for their PhD,” she continued.
Sarah also says that Ireland is behind the times when it comes to paying research students to teach, and that there is a grey area in the definition of PHD candidates here in Ireland.
“I’m originally from America, and I was paid during my undergraduate degree there to teach. I also spent some time in the Netherlands and the conditions for research students there and across Europe are a lot better than they are here in Ireland. Some research students get paid here, and others don’t- Ireland needs to be brought up to scratch.”
“It’s almost as if we’re told that we’re being rewarded by being taught how to teach. We are not recognised as employees by HR, yet we are still working for the University. There is also a disconnect between undergraduate students and PhD students and it feels like we are in between. It is beyond me,” she finished.
The Student’s Union has shown its support to postgraduate workers by sending a letter to the University’s Management Team, asking for their co-operation in resolving the situation.
In the letter, Student’s Union President Pádraic Toomey said: “The ongoing issue of postgraduate students being required to undertake unpaid teaching is generating even more unrest in the current situation.
“We propose that you work with the trade unions and postgraduate representatives to find a solution to the issue of unpaid teaching, and the ensure the safety of postgraduate students engaged in teaching through the provision of adequate PPE equipment and safe teaching spaces,” he concluded.
A spokesperson from the Department of Minister for Higher Education, Research, and Innovation responded to a request from comment on the issue, stating that, “Universities are autonomous institutions within the meaning of the Universities Act 1997 and the management of their academic affairs, including the delivery of courses are matters for the individual institutions. “However, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science would strongly encourage both sides to engage to resolve this matter,”.