Lack of Clarity around Deadline for PhD Supports Review - Fight for Postgraduate Workers’ Rights continues

The Postgraduate Workers Organisation released a press release on February 14th responding to an alleged delay in the release of the findings in the Department of Higher Education’s PhD Review.

The Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation (PWO) has described the alleged decision of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation, and Science to postpone the completion of the National Review of State Supports for PhD Researchers as “unacceptable”. The University Observer previously reported that the review, co-chaired by Dr Andrea Johnson and David Cagney, was expected to be published early this year. The PWO has claimed in a press release that the deadline for the review has been extended by a further 3 months, pushing it into the second quarter of 2023. The alleged decision to postpone the review has been received with disappointment from the postgraduate worker community, as many continue to campaign for improved payment and working conditions.

In the recent press release, the PWO described the alleged delay as “unacceptable”, stating: “PhD researchers are denied protections for parental leave, sick leave, minimum wages, and workers’ rights under Irish law. The delay of this review signals that the Department of Higher Education and the Irish Government are apathetic to the Irish research and education crisis, and that the systemic issues faced by some of Ireland’s most talented researchers are not a priority.” However, when reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Department stated that: “The review, informed by a robust evidence base, will be completed by the end of March as planned. [...] Minister Harris and his Department will then consider its findings before going to Government with proposals, which is expected to happen in May.”

When asked for further clarification, the Department reiterated that the review: “will be completed by the end of March as planned.” It is unclear whether the alleged delay will take place, or if there have been any amendments to the timetable for the review. When reached for comment, PCAU informed the University Observer that they had received correspondence from a senior Department official, indicating that the review would be completed in the first half of 2023, rather than specifically the first quarter. In a letter to the President of the PCAU obtained by the University Observer, Dr Deirdre Lillis, Assistant Secretary of the Department, stated: “The review, informed by a robust evidence base, will be completed in the first half of 2023.”

This would appear to indicate a lack of clarity surrounding the official deadline for completion. While the Department has been consistent in its statements to the University Observer regarding the proposed March deadline, the correspondence received by PCAU appears to have created a lack of clarity around the timeframe of the long awaited review of financial supports available to researchers. This lack of clear communication with postgraduate organisers and representatives has received some backlash, and may account for the anger over fears that the deadline has been extended by 3 months. Dr Lillis’ letter referring to the “first half” as opposed to the first quarter of the year seems to have contributed to the outcry expressed in the PWO press release.

The PWO emerged as the product of an announcement made by the PGWAI (Postgraduate Workers Alliance Ireland) and PCAU (PhDs’ Collective Action Union) of their mutual intention to merge their respective organisations in January of this year.

In a statement, Jeffrey Sardina, Vice-President of the PCAU, stated that the alleged 3-month delay reflected a “shocking lack of accountability in the Department of Higher Education.” Sardina argued that: “negligence has created a crisis for the Irish research economy and higher education system [...].” Sardina, along with other postgraduate representatives, called for accountability, urging the Department to address the workers’ demands. Sardina stated: “It is my sincere intent that this failure be followed with rapid, immediate action from the PWO to force [Minister] Harris and the Department of Higher Education to be held to account.” 

In conversation with the University Observer, Sardina argued that the Irish government had “sent PhDs [...] on a massive destructive course for Higher Education. [...] And while we don’t want to have to come to a strike, we are fighting for undergrads too, because, if we are forced out because we simply can’t put a roof over our heads, the entire system falls.”

The University Observer learned that the activists had considered employing a variety of methods to agitate on behalf of postgraduate workers, including exploring the prospect of industrial action, and the possibility of engaging in legal activism to pursue a judicial remedy for the status of these workers. However, given the lack of protections under the Industrial Relations Act suffered by postgraduates, organising and unionising these workers has proved enormously difficult. Sardina and Hamilton informed us that non-EU nationals face additional legal and financial barriers due to their immigration status, rendering industrial action extremely challenging for them.

Recently graduated workers face a number of challenges. This also applies to Post-Masters of Education workers, many of whom are unaware of their payment entitlements and lose out on payments for labour that exceeds their placement allowance. One source informed the University Observer that they were still owed 4 thousand euro in unpaid wages for work they performed during their teaching placement at a Dublin school. The issue of work performed after undergraduate level continues to create problems for the Education sector, and has compounded recruitment and retention issues in teaching and research posts. The PWO are expected to continue applying pressure on the Government to improve conditions for workers across this sector.

Postgraduate Workers who wish to have their voice heard on this and other matters are asked to please email