The critical role PhD candidates play at the heart of Irish research risks being undermined by unacceptably low stipend payments, according to a leading academic.
Payments to thousands of PhD researchers were cut after the financial crash as an austerity measure but should be restored urgently, said Prof Orla Feely, vice-president (VP) for research, innovation and impact in UCD.
The PhDs’ Collective Action Union (PCAU) has been campaigning for a better stipend, and its president Jeffrey Sardina said inflation and cost-of-living issues have “created a crisis for current PhD students that could bring down the Irish research economy and threaten the sustainability of the undergraduate education system”. He said, “even pre-inflation pay for PhD researchers was below the minimum wage”.
The stipend given to doctoral researchers in higher education is a standard rate of €18,500. There are 4,000 research students in receipt of externally funded stipends from the exchequer and 2,000 more who are internally funded through the budget of individual universities.
Prof Feely said many research students who are dependent on the stipend are floundering from a financial point of view and this had become more pointed due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Current payment levels were “an austerity-era measure not yet addressed. It’s past time to address this,” she told The Irish Times.
She recalled an application she made for research funding in 2008, where €18,500 was paid to PhDs in their first year with payments increased yearly to €21,500 in the fourth year. Now researchers get “a flat €18,500 per annum and [it] has been at that level for a long time. This is a reduced level from the amounts of the stipend pre-financial crash,” she said.
Stipend of €24,000
Prof Feely chairs a group of research VPs under the Irish Universities Association which is recommending it be increased to €24,000.
“There is a clear risk that numbers of research students working in higher education will begin to diminish because many students cannot support themselves for the three/four years it takes to get to postdoctoral level,” she said.
There was evidence this was already happening, while researchers were increasingly likely to favour other jurisdictions, she added.
“Some 92 per cent of doctoral graduates are in employment nine months after qualification and many of these are in natural sciences, education, technology, engineering, health ... the mission-critical areas of FDI and domestic enterprise. So, they represent an important part of the talent pipeline for the knowledge economy.”
Where PhDs from different countries were adequately supported, they often stayed in Ireland and contributed to economic development, she said. Equally there was an equity argument as currently “the most disadvantaged researchers cannot progress”.
Mainly principal investigators leading teams of researchers, however, were unable to attract enough PhDs, which meant research was not getting completed as envisaged.
In July, the Government announced Innovate for Ireland, a new scheme seeking to attract up to 400 PhD candidates to undertake research in priority areas. A stipend of €28,000 is being offered to successful applicants.
However, Mr Sardina said some researchers do not receive any stipends, while others get as little as €6,500. In an open letter to Irish universities, funding agencies and the Department of Education, PCAU sought appropriate compensation for PhD researchers. A petition requesting a meeting with Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has been signed by more than 3,200 PhD candidates and supporters.
That meeting has not been acceded to but there are indications the universities, Science Foundation Ireland, Health Research Board, Irish Research Council and the department favour an increase.
Not only was the stipend difficult if not impossible for some to live on, but PhDs remained demoralised by lack of worker status, said Mr Sardina. “A PhD researcher is not a trainee or apprentice — they are an academic worker. They contribute to both academia and the economy through their novel and sometimes patent-producing research.”
He added: “We want to research and to teach – but Ireland is forcing us to choose between research and being able to pay our bills. This is entirely unsustainable, so we have gathered to demand change that will protect Ireland’s status as a leading research country.
“PhD level research contributes to the Irish information and research economy, and each PhD researcher is another person enhancing undergraduate education by marking, demonstrating in labs, and acting as teaching assistants in classes.”