As the countdown to Budget 2024 ticks closer to zero, unionised groups of students and researchers all over Ireland are taking a stand on well-known issues like affordable housing, cost of living, and the student contribution charge.
For postgraduate researchers, who are paid a shocking average of €7.88 per hour, making ends meet is becoming increasingly difficult.
The Postgraduate Workers Organisation of Ireland (PWO) has outlined its demands which include a universal €28,000 stipend, access to parental leave, and legal worker’s status for non-EU/EEA researchers.
Stipends of any kind for researchers in Ireland have hardly increased in a decade, yet researcher’s pay grows continually closer to the poverty line amidst a cost-of-living crisis.
The last demand, one of the most crucial, would provide non-EU/EEA postgraduates with the same social welfare, insurance benefits, and working hours as Irish Citizens.
For researchers at the University of Galway, Student Union Postgraduate Research Officer Chris Stewart explained that a universal stipend would, “change dramatically the quality of life for just about every PhD researcher at this university. That goes for the entire country as well. Specifically for Galway, the average PhD researcher is paid below minimum wage equivalent.”
Chris continued, “Bringing everybody up in the PhD world here would have immediate impact because I know personally PhDs at this university who work three jobs to make ends meet. I know PhDs who do not have housing arrangements; I spoke to one yesterday who’s living in a hotel.”
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) held protests in Dublin on Wednesday 4 October, mainly targeting the government’s 65 billion euro “rainy day fund.”
The USI seeks 30,000 additional beds in student accommodations, abolition of the student contribution charge, and an across-the-board €25,000 postgraduate research stipend.
There is an important distinction to be made in the terminology of how PhD researchers are addressed. Legally, non-EU/EEA researchers are classified as students, barring them from important welfare benefits that Irish citizens enjoy.
The “deliberate” degradation of international postgraduates is not a new reality to those seeking their doctoral degrees in Ireland. Chris said, “We are treated as a separate class because we can be taken advantage of more easily. We are students when it is convenient for administration and government, we are workers when it is convenient for administration and government.
“At no point are we afforded the full rights and benefits of really either category. In fact, it’s generally more insidious than that. We are providing teaching, we are providing research, we are performing labour for the benefit of universities – especially the University of Galway. It always focuses on research and excellence and things of this nature, completely ignoring the fact that it isn’t providing a living wage to the people who are boosting their rankings,” added Chris.
Furthermore, without any fundamental change to the current system, Chris expects, “An exodus of those who receive their degrees from Ireland. They will go to better places, where they are treated better, they’re treated like humans, they’re paid a living wage.”
Ireland prides itself on its strides towards a modern society. Rents in Galway County have increased by an average of 15% since 2022. No social protection was available to both non-EU/EEA students and researchers.
It is unrealistic to expect research and the pursuit of postgraduate degrees from people who would not earn a living wage from it.
PhDs often have children, families, and parents to take care of while they research. If an international researcher wanted to bring their family to Ireland, Chris summarised, “The spouse is not afforded a working visa for anyone who is on a student visa. Technically, they are brought over as a dependent of the PhD researcher who is on Stamp 2, which is a student visa. They are not afforded the right to work. So that means the €19,000 stipend must cover the spouse, as well as any children.”
The severity of the mistreatment which impacts thousands of highly skilled professional researchers cannot be taken lightly.