An independent review has recommended that Irish PhD researchers are paid €25,000 (£21,500) per year. This represents a 30% increase for recipients of Science Foundation Ireland and Irish Research Council Awards.
The review’s authors set out to investigate the circumstances of the 10,000 PhD researchers in Ireland. But its recommendations have disappointed the Postgraduate Workers Organisation (PWO) union. In a statement the PWO detailed how the review failed to address areas of concern beyond pay. The organisation will now ballot its members on strike action.
The review was announced by the government in October 2022 and was to consider matters such as financial support, the employment status of PhD researchers, and visa requirements and duration for non-EU students. Ireland has a national target to raise the number of researchers in its workforce from 9.52 per 1000 in 2019 to 15 by 2030.
The main conclusion from this first report was that the current stipend of around €18,000 to €19,000 per annum is insufficient, given current cost of living challenges. It noted that PhD researchers funded by higher education institutions currently receive between €5000 to €18,500, and recommended that they be paid €25,000 per year. ‘We note also that public finances are buoyant at present and now may be the opportune time to make a significant investment in our research and innovation talent pipeline,’ the review authors write.
Ireland has a high cost of living. In 2022, consumer goods and services cost more in Ireland than any other EU member state. Inflation last year was around 8%, with the average rent more than €1500 a month and €2063 a month for new tenancies in Dublin.
Between 2007 and 2021, official stats suggest that full-time and part-time PhD enrolments rose from 5989 to 10,013, a rise of 67%. ‘A positive feature of the Irish research landscape is that our doctoral cohort has strong internationally diverse representation,’ the report notes.
PhDs from non-EU countries (excluding the UK) increased from 1422 to 2677 between this time, while the number from the EU went from 705 to 981. Now, around 30% of PhD researchers in Ireland are from abroad, compared with an EU average of 20%, the report observes.
‘PhD researchers play a critical role within all our research,’ says Conor Reddy, president of the PWO and a biomedical researcher at Trinity College Dublin. ‘What’s absent from this review is any recommendation on employment rights.’
Ireland should follow other European countries in recognising PhD researchers as workers, not students, he says, which would deliver them employment rights such as sick leave, parental leave and holiday entitlements. ‘The report excuses this omission by saying it is a complex issue. It is complex, but we don’t think it is too complex.’
Another issue is the visa and immigration status of non-EU researchers, whose spouses do not have a right to work in Ireland, the PWO noted. As Ireland is outside the Schengen area it means that these researchers must apply for visas when travelling to conferences in other EU countries. The review recommended that the government ameliorate the challenges faced by non-EU PhD researchers, especially those that arise from administrative arrangements rather than legal requirements.
‘The years spent in Ireland for PhD researchers do not count towards residency or citizenship,’ Reddy notes. ‘It makes no sense that the state would incur significant cost to train someone to a high level, often in areas identified as having critical skills shortages,’ and then lose them due to their visa status.
His organisation noted that strike action by PhDs won significant welfare and pay improvements at the University of California and Columbia University in 2022. If PhD researchers reject the outcome of the review, the PWO will consider strike actions such as declining to supervise labs, refusing to mark essays or exams, and ending all teaching activities.