"Hungry hunters are the best hunters”: Postgraduate workers are underpaid and lack basic employment protections

Revenue commission states that Postgrad Researchers do not qualify for scholarship exemption on stipend.

Recent correspondence between Revenue and PWO (Postgraduate Workers Organisation) committee member Seathrún Sardina confirms that postgraduate workers are not tax exempt, despite earning 22% under minimum wage per annum. 

Sardina claims that he was instructed by his institution, Trinity College Dublin, and the SFI, to fill out a “Scholarship Exemption Declaration Form”, which declares that he is a full time student and tax exempt on his earnings through his PhD programme. This is despite Sardina not sitting any instruction or receiving direct education during his time in the programme. He describes the function of his PhD programme as being "to generate intellectual property for my college through research and to teach."

Sardina contacted Revenue for clarity on this matter, as the form requires the signatory to confirm that they are in full time education, which he is not. Revenue responded as follows.

"Section 193 TCA 1997 provides that income arising from a scholarship is exempt

from income tax, USC and PRSI when certain conditions are satisfied. The main

condition is:

The scholarship must be held by a person receiving full-time instruction at a

university, college, school or other educational establishment. ‘Scholarship’

includes an exhibition, bursary or other similar educational endowment.

The object of the scholarship must be the promotion of the education of the holder

rather than the promotion of research through the holder."

Sardina, despite earning less than the national minimum wage, now could potentially owe the state over €1,000 in taxes.

Following the publication of this leak, Trinity lecturer Brian Lucey took to Twitter to post the following: “My honest to [sic] take is that postgraduate students aren’t employees. I worry about stipends that are overly generous because in my view a hungry hunter is the best hunter. I also think a lot of this as [sic] being driven by reasonable envy of industry linked stem stipends.” Lucey, who published this tweet on the first of April, had received 6 likes and 338 quote retweets by April 6th.

Rachel, who is a PhD candidate in University of Galway, also spoke to the University Observer about her experience completing a PhD in Ireland. Rachel, alongside her own research, which her PhD candidacy is dependant on, is also supervising a Masters student pursuing her own thesis. ““A working week would be 8 to 5 generally, it kind of varies, we have different responsibilities depending on the time of year that it is.”

Rachel describes her current day to day duties, a lot of which focus on her Masters student. “Also I have to write papers, do my own research, attend conferences, supervise and teach her, correct her thesis, give her pointers for presentations, basically run through what it is to be a microbiologist with her, and all the techniques that we’re using, and make sure that she’s proficient in them. And also train her on like, safety things et cetera. Then we’ll have a little bit of a lull in August - oh, also at the same time they’ll have our graduate research committees, where they’ll basically tell us if we’re good enough to stay or if they’ll kick us out of the programme.”

In the Spring and Autumn academic terms, Rachel also supervises labs for 4th year students in University of Galway. When asked to quantify the amount of work she does in a week for her university, Rachel responded, “In terms of hours, I’d say about 65, 70 hours a week.” 

When asked about the current stipend based system, Rachel said “I completely understand the mutually beneficial relationship where you get a degree, but you also do a lot of research and a lot of teaching for them that really, a lot of the time...like the teaching, you can do that just for your own personal development as a human being. It’s good to teach. But what we do is above and beyond what is actually necessary, and it actually inhibits our ability to do our research. And we’re doing it, a lot of the teaching is for free, and I just don’t feel that they should be paying anyone below what should be a living wage here in Ireland.”

“You shouldn’t have to struggle. You’re bringing prestige to the university, keeping them in their rankings, by doing high quality research and publishing it, but they don’t remunerate you for that, at all.”

“There’s two issues that are the biggest ones for me. The HEAI has done some research on this, the proportion of affluent students to disadvantaged students, at undergraduate level it would be 18% are considered affluent to 10% that are disadvantaged. At PhD level that’s 28% that are considered affluent versus 6% that are considered disadvantaged. That’s really concerning, that basically your tertiary level system is reinforcing the fact that education is only for the rich.”

“That’s the biggest issue [...] it’s enforcing a classist system, and that’s really disgusting that the people who can avail of the opportunity are people that are privileged, and that’s not what we should be standing for as a system.”

“My second issue is the fact that now the system is a student based system. You have staff responsibilities, but you’re not an employee. For me, the biggest issue with that is in relation to the teaching, because you’re not an employee, there are no policies for the safeguarding and protection of the undergraduate and Masters students that are in your care, and I just feel like it is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

This issue was also highlighted by incoming UCDSU Welfare Officer Jill Nelis, who promised to bring in an Anti-Fraternisation Policy in UCD, where the only rule currently is that students' work cannot be corrected by someone they have a relationship with. 

With PhD candidates being so close in age to undergraduates, Rachel sees this as a particularly pressing issue. “There is a power imbalance [...] You don’t sign a contract to do it, you don’t even sign a code of conduct to do it [...] There’s no basics of ‘This is how you should interact with them, this is inappropriate behaviour, this is not.’ There’s nothing.”

“At least, if we were employees, we would be subject to HR, we would be subject to staff policies and procedures [...] That would provide protection to us, to the university, and to the students.”

With both the UCD and Trinity branches of the PWO speaking to the University Observer about the issues their members face, these same issues pop up time and again. The stipend being less than minimum wage, in scholarship agreements where being known to be doing other work puts your stipend at risk. The lack of employment protections for sick leave, paid time off, students having to leave their PhD programmes as there is no maternity leave, despite working full time as a researcher or educator, came up with all five interviewees.

This is why Matt and Seathrún from Trinity PWO, as well as Cristina from UCD PWO, have all sent queries to Revenue regarding whether the scholarship agreement truly exempts them from paying tax. This exemption is granted based on the PhD candidate confirming that they are 1) in receipt of full time education and 2) not providing any service to their university as part of their PhD programme.

“In Ireland there is a set of five requirements for what you have to meet to actually be considered an employee under law and to have workers rights.” Seathrún explained. “The reason we submitted this is that the only one of those requirements we don’t meet, is paying taxes.”

“The reason we submitted this is that we realised that this tax exemption form that we were given does not apply to us. We are not students, we are not receiving full time instruction, and the primary purpose of our degree is to produce research for our university. So we submitted this to revenue and very clearly outlined this, and the response, very unexpectedly, this exemption is invalid, you are expected to be paying taxes.”

Seathrún has calculated that he would owe something close to €1,000 in taxes on his stipend of €18,500, before accounting for tax credits and banding.

Both groups stressed the importance of acquiring this working status, and not just for the increased wage they would be owed, as the current highest stipend still comes out to under minimum wage. By not being workers, PhD candidates are working full time without making any PRSI payments, which affects their future state pensions, their ability to access free eyecare, hearing care, and dental appointments, that others who work full time for four years would be able to avail of.

UCD PWO also highlighted that PhD work does not count towards residency for non-EEA students, the way that other full time work would. “[To be considered workers] Would remove a bunch of negatives and imposed penalties and fees on non-EU students, you may know already, if you’re working in Ireland on a working visa, then those years you spend here contribute to your naturalisation, like you eventually getting citizenship and all that comes with it. Currently that doesn’t apply to PhD students.” Explained PWO representative Jack McNicholl.

“You can spend four years here, living, working, contributing to the community, and then at the end it’s like ‘Sorry, you don’t really have any claims of being here.’ You have to stay here way longer, with all the downsides that entails.”

Currently UCD PWO are awaiting communication on their own queries from Revenue, before bringing the Trinity branches findings to UCD Management.