PhD students aren’t cash cows

Thomas Murray of the Postgraduate Fee Campaign argues that UCD’s move to raise postgraduate fees is a heartless attempt at solving the financial crisisLast October, an email was sent to UCD’s postgraduate students informing them that “from September 2010, the programme fees of all years of PhD or research Masters programmes will be charged at the same rate”. A seemingly innocuous declaration, this change in fee structure amounts to an entirely unjust attack on postgraduates.For the current academic year, PhD fees at UCD for the first three years of studies are €5,200 per annum for Humanities and Social Sciences, and €5,800 for Science and Engineering. Non-EU postgraduates must pay approximately double these figures. By long-standing practice, after three years of study, fees for postgraduate courses decreased to half this standard fee. Students who started their programmes this year or earlier would therefore have done so with the legitimate expectation that fees would be significantly reduced should their work take more than three years. Thus, the email of October 23rd effectively informed us that fees for students going into fourth and subsequent years of research would be doubled (without even taking into account the ever-rising registration fee). Clearly, notice of this proposed increase is wholly inadequate for those already far too advanced in their research to consider stopping. But that is not the only reason to be opposed to the increase.Perhaps most obviously, it is difficult to justify the level of fees as they currently stand. What precisely do postgraduate students receive in return for their outlay? Fees for the later years of postgraduate study are already too high, especially when one compares the levels being demanded by UCD with equivalent programmes at other universities. In Great Britain, for example, postgraduates in the closing stages of research pay ‘writing fees’, usually less than £500. Meanwhile, UCD’s existing services for researchers, including opening hours for the main library and archives, have already been cut back. In addition, the under-resourcing of the library is a particular bone of contention for those engaged in specialised research.Worse still, the decision to increase fees comes at a time when funding for postgraduate research is sadly lacking. The funding that is currently available typically covers three years of research only; many must cope without any funding at all. For these students, taking on extra employment to fund education is no longer as available an option as it once was. Even within the university, between the recruitment freeze and the reduction in wages for postgraduate staff, extra work no longer offers a feasible means of covering the cost of higher education. This decision to increase fees will bring additional hardship to many postgraduate students already suffering the effects of the recession, many of whom in turn have dependents to support.There is of course a wider issue about how higher education is to be funded. At present, many universities have large deficits due to cutbacks in government spending. It is disappointing, but not especially surprising, therefore, that UCD is looking to pass this cost on to students. Increasing fees, however, is an altogether regressive measure and must be recognised as such. Apart from the immediate repercussions for those currently in the system, these increases will act as a deterrent for those who want to pursue postgraduate research in the future. Given that the long-term development of this state will depend on opening access to higher education, the decision to make postgraduate studies less accessible smacks of short-termist thinking. More than that, it is blatantly unfair.One contributor to an online petition calling for a reversal of the decision said it best: “It is an act of social injustice to restrict access by financial mechanisms, albeit for financial reasons, when all other avenues for those struggling financially (tutor fees, scholarships, etc.) are also being restricted or reduced. Merit, unadulterated by privilege, is once again being squeezed out of our education system.”Ultimately, this issue cuts to the heart of how decisions are made in UCD. The capacity of the University to change fee levels without due notice, once a student has already signed up under a different fee structure is highly suspect to say the least. There needs to be much greater transparency concerning the consequential decisions, which currently tend to be made for us rather than with us. Postgraduate students have yet to receive an adequate response from UCD management on this issue.This article is intended to reflect a growing demand among the postgraduate student body for the UCD Heads of Colleges to justify their decision to increase fees. But more than that, it is an appeal for support.A petition calling on UCD to reverse the increase in postgraduate fees can be accessed at