Graduates wearing caps standing in a row facing away from view.
Image: © Sengchoy Int/

State review of PhD supports ‘fails on fundamentals’, Irish postgrad union says

28 Jun 2023

The Postgraduate Workers’ Union said they argued to be treated as workers and not students. They threatened strike action if their demands were not met.

The union that represents postgraduate workers in Ireland has outlined its criticism of a review published by the Government that looked into State supports for PhD researchers in Ireland.

The Postgraduate Workers’ Union (PWO) said that the State’s review did not “critically examine the broken model of higher education funding in Ireland”.

The union also claimed that the review did not adequately address concerns regarding working conditions (other than pay) that its members and other stakeholders outlined as part of a consultation process informing the review’s findings.

The first report as part of the National Review of State Supports for PhD Researchers was released on 26 June. The Government first announced a review of how the State supports its postgraduate workers late last year as part of Impact 2030, its national strategy to boost research and innovation.

The report was co-authored by Dr Andrea Johnson and David Cagney, who were appointed by Minister Simon Harris of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

The authors engaged with stakeholders including the Postgraduate Workers’ Union (PWO) which submitted recommendations and sent delegates to ensure its core demands would be addressed. In total, they received more than 750 written submissions and held 35 stakeholder meetings with various PhD researcher groups, higher education institutions, research funders, trade unions, enterprise representative bodies and international groups.

In its statement reacting to the review, the PWO said that while the report made “a number of recommendations that would represent improvements for some PhD researchers if implemented, it also fails on fundamentals raised by PWO throughout the review process”.

Concerns beyond pay

The union’s main issue with the report was what it described as its failure to address “areas of concern beyond pay”. The report recommended that the stipend level for PhD researchers be increased with an optimum target of €25,000.

The authors advised that any salary increases should take effect from the start of the 2023/2024 academic year, but no later than 1 January 2024. They also recommended that the stipend should be adjusted thereafter in alignment with changes to the cost of living.

The PWO said that the stipend increase proposals were “substantial” but added that it was unclear whether or not this would be delivered to all researchers.

A statement from the Government accompanying the report’s publication pointed out that the co-authors “prioritised pressing challenges facing PhD researchers in terms of stipend levels”. But the PWO claimed that the report “fails to meaningfully address the status of PhD researchers (employees or students), despite this being in the original terms of reference for the report”.

Together with other stakeholders, the group had proposed supporting a change of status to an employment-based model for doctoral training. It said it “specifically asked” that the authors recommend an extended process to examine their status as workers, which it said was not fulfilled.

It found fault with suggestions made in the report for further engagement on PhD reform via a task force led by the authors and a recommendation for a travel bursary for workers. According to the PWO, the report does not “specifically recommend” changes to the Visa or immigration status of non-EU or EEA PhD researchers coming to Ireland to work.

It also said that the absence of parental leave and sick leave for postgraduate workers was not addressed and it added that postgraduates should be treated as workers so they can claim rental tax credits, for example. The union highlighted that many of its members are adversely impacted by the housing crisis in Ireland.

PGRs seen as ‘inexpensive labour’

The PWO reserved some of its most severe criticism for the Government’s plan to increase the number of researchers in Ireland as part of Impact 2030.

“A component of this strategy, as stated in the review, is to increase the number of researchers in Ireland by almost 60pc by 2030. This is on top of an increase of 67pc in the number [of] PhD enrolments in the 14 years prior, as also stated in the review,” it said.

“At no point in the review is the impact of this demand for continuous growth in the sector on those postgraduate researchers (PGRs) who enable its existence actually considered. Instead, the authors note that in the absence of increased exchequer funding, a ‘phasing’ in of the suggested stipend increase may be necessary, while also stating that it is ‘imperative’ that this does not result in a reduction in the intake of PhD researchers.”

The PWO said that these statements by the authors of the review “sadly confirm” its members’ fears that the review was “constrained from the start”. It accused the review of propping up “a keeling higher education system that treats its PGRs as a source of inexpensive labour” and described it as “thoroughly underwhelming” on Twitter.

Next steps

The review was welcomed by Minister Harris, who thanked Cagney and Johnson for their work. He said the review’s publication marked “an inflection point in our thinking on many critical issues for PhD researchers and how we can better support them to contribute to the realisation of Impact 2030’s vision”.

Cagney and Johnson said they were “delighted” to have been asked to carry out the review by Harris. “Our PhD researcher community is a vital element of Ireland’s research talent pipeline; they are our future researchers and innovators across all parts of society and the economy,” they said.

The Government will develop a work programme based on the findings of the review. It will also work with stakeholders to implement recommendations on a phased basis.

The PWO said it will begin a consultation process with its members regarding collective action – which could include strikes. The union said it recognised that strike action has won “significant welfare and pay improvements in universities such as the University of California and Columbia University”.

“As such, in conjunction with student unions across Ireland and a consultative process with our members, we intend to ballot all PhD researchers on whether they accept the outcomes of the review. PWO believes that all PhD researchers in Ireland should have the final say on whether the outcomes of this review and subsequent legislation are sufficient enough to meet their needs.”

The organisation said it would work with universities to ensure that students affected by any planned strikes or “disruptive action” would be accommodated for.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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