Postgraduate Workers

It was good to see quite a lot of coverage in the Irish Media of yesterday’s demonstration by the Postgraduate Workers Organization (PWO) at the Dáil Éireann; see, for example, here, here and here). The PWO is campaigning for postgraduate students to be paid on a living wage and with full workers’ rights under employment law, such as sick leave entitlement and maximum working hours. You can read more about their demands in the Fair Researcher Agreement here. I endorse this campaign wholeheartedly.

Postgraduate students in Ireland are treated abysmally by the current arrangements, and their situation is rapidly getting worse. Stipend levels (the best of which are currently around €18,500) have not been adjusted for inflation for many years and the recent surge in prices has made this even worse. The living wage is around €26,000 in Ireland, and the stipend should be increased to at least that level. I would argue, and indeed have argued, that even this level would be inadequate.

University employees such as myself have recently been awarded a significant pay rise. It is patently unfair that postgraduate students, who make an essential contribution to the teaching as well as research in all academic departments, should be left behind.

The root cause of  this is the chronic underfunding of Ireland’s universities. While lecturers’ pay is determined by central agreements, it is not necessarily the case that colleges and universities are given enough funding to cover the increase. The result is that third-level institutions can’t employ enough full-time academic staff to teach the ever-increasing number of students, and instead have to rely on poorly-paid casual labour, much of which supplied by postgraduates. While I do think that PhD students benefit from having a bit of teaching experience during the course of their programme, the current situation where the students can’t afford to live unless they take on a large amount of additional work.

While the fundamental cause is clear, and lies at a Government level, it seems to me that the situation of PhD students in Ireland is exacerbated by rampant managerialism. Take my own institution, Maynooth University, for example. The ratio of undergraduate students to academic staff in Maynooth is the highest in Ireland at 28:1. Instead of investing in more academic staff, however, the University has recently gone on a spending spree to recruit more members of senior management. I put in a Freedom of Information request in recently, which revealed that Maynooth has spent around €250K since September 2020 on recruitment consultancies alone in connection with 10 senior management positions. That’s not counting the recurrent salary costs of the new staff. The addition of yet more people to an already top-heavy management structure is impossible to justify, especially when postgraduate students are struggling to make ends meet.

There seems to be much less enthusiasm here for filling academic staff positions, or even advertising them, as I have learnt recently by personal experience. Universities are communities whose primary aims are teaching and research. In my opinion postgraduate workers, collectively, contribute far more to those communities than do the President, Vice-Presidents and sundry Directors. I just wish more people recognized that. If postgraduate workers decided to withdraw their labour, the University would cease to function.

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