Funding model of PhD research is broken

Irish institutions have become reliant on PhD researchers as a cheap form of labour

Sir, – Prof Barry O’ Sullivan, a professor of UCC and the director of the AI Centre for Research Training, a major Science Foundation Ireland-backed funder of PhD researchers in Ireland, rightly points out that the National Training Fund (NTF) has run surpluses of more than €300 million during a time when PhD researchers are struggling to live on salaries that are, even for the so-called best-funded individuals, more than 20 per cent below the minimum wage (Letters, December 21st).

However, Prof O’ Sullivan failed to address a significant elephant in the room when it comes to the provision of PhD funding in Ireland. With more than a decade of severe underfunding of the university sector, an ever-diminishing staff to pupil ratio and unprecedented pressure to produce research in the face of international rankings, Irish colleges have become reliant on PhD researchers as a cheap form of labour, free of the protections and requirements of those with employee status. Not only does Ireland have the lowest stipend provision relative to the cost of living when compared to other countries in the EU, it is now out of step with the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden and Austria, countries that rightly recognise PhD researchers as employees and provide them with the necessary protections that this involves. Instead, higher education in Ireland has been forced to stretch the scholarship exemption criteria of the 1997 Taxes Consolidation Act to absurd levels in order to keep PhD researchers recognised as students, and therefore tax-free stipend recipients, despite the fact that the vast majority of modern PhD work involves full-time research rather than full-time instruction.

Furthermore, the recognition of employee status would improve the frankly embarrassing treatment of non-EU PhD researchers in Ireland, a cohort which, given their student visas, are forced to renew their status in Ireland annually at an absurd cost of €300, with waiting times between eight to 12 weeks being commonplace. Despite these researchers investing four of the most productive years of their life into the Irish research economy, their time in this country does not count towards residency, providing little incentive to stay and contribute their advanced research skills to the Irish knowledge economy.

While we welcome Prof O’Sullivan’s proposal and the provision of a €28,000 salary as a minimum, the truth is that the funding model of PhD research and education in Ireland is as fundamentally broken as that of the sector as a whole, a point that the increasingly forgotten 2016 Cassells report made clear more than half a decade ago. The current review of PhD conditions under way at the Department of Higher Education can thus only have one conclusion – PhDs need to be recognised and protected as employees, lest Irish research diminish and become increasingly uncompetitive in the face of its EU neighbours. – Yours, etc,



PhD Researcher and

Data Officer for the

PhDs Collective

Action Union (PCAU),

School of Computer Science and Statistics,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.