Precarious work as a PhD in UCD; PhDs organise to fight for better working conditions

The group ‘Anti-Casualisation UCD’ has been formed by UCD PhD students in order to combat what they claim are unjust working conditions, as well as seeking to address the severe quality of life issues that are faced by PhD candidates in Ireland. They highlight several issues with the current system, including a lack of transparency, poor to non-existent pay for their labour, and discrimination between EU and non-EU PhD candidates.

Currently there are two methods of funding for PhDs in Ireland, either internal or external funding. External bodies, such as the Irish Research Council, offer stipends of €16000 per year to successful applicants. Internally, UCD can offer scholarships to cover the cost of fees - although the fees can still rise by €500 a year, this increase is not covered by the college, meaning PhDs can enter university with their fees ostensibly paid, only to leave and owe up to €2000.

Stipends can vary in their amount, but the IRC’s €16000 is roughly the average amount offered to PhD candidates. This poses several immediate issues; most notably rent. Living in Dublin is more expensive than it has ever been, with rents averaging at €1391 per month, according to the latest figures from A single person paying this rent would pay €16,692 a year - exceeding the total stipend on rent alone. Even in a sharing situation, annual rent could exceed €9000, leaving little to no disposable income. This intense financial strain leaves PhDs with little choice but to take on a second job, or teach at the university.

Speaking to The University Observer, representatives from Anti-Casualisation (AC) spoke of the problems faced by PhDs in Irish universities, especially around the issue of teaching classes; “Students are often required to teach and demonstrate as part of departmental scholarship, without receiving additional compensation for this work. In many cases it is unclear ex ante how many hours a student will have to teach.

“In 2011 the hourly rates of pay for tutors and demonstrators were cut as part of the public sector wage agreement. So now there is a two-tier system between people who started working in UCD on an hourly rate before 2011 and people who started to work here afterwards. The post-2011 rate for undergrad tutor demonstrator is now equal to the minimum wage. Pay has been restored elsewhere in the public sector and in the university.”

“The PhD stipends can vary in a range from €1,000 and €18,500, but some schools offer only fee waving and then you might be offered the opportunity to work as a tutor/demonstrator and be paid hourly .This means that you end up doing a double work: researching and teaching intensively in order to sustain yourself.”

UCD AC also outlined the smaller, consistent issues facing PhDs who teach - some have to pay for the photocopies they bring to class, in certain departments they are not paid for their office hours, or for answering emails. "There is also the issue of being paid for a certain amount of hours in which you are expected to complete both teaching and preparation, but you end up working for longer since obligations like office hours and answering emails are not properly accounted for." a representative from UCD AC told The University Observer . There is a huge amount of variety between schools when it comes to PhDs - from the fees to pay, there is little to no consistency throughout UCD.

The University Observer spoke to Frank Jones, the Deputy General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers about the precarious nature of employment for researchers in Irish universities. He told the Observer that he has represented workers from nearly every industry and profession, but has “never come across the precarity the researchers are engaged under”. Because of the manner in which they are engaged, many PhDs are not covered by legislation that protects workers, due to them being classified as students. “It isn’t acceptable in Tesco, it isn't acceptable in Pfizer, it isn't acceptable in any other sector that I’m aware of.” Jones told the Observer.

A representative from UCD AC spoke on this issue, saying; “As a student you are not considered an employee and so certain issues which may be considered labour issues do not apply to you as you are a student. But then if you consider PhD students as students then the quality of their education is impacted by the fact that while the PhD should be mostly about doing research, learning, etc, you end up spending a lot of hours on tutorials just to make ends meet. There is an issue on both sides, for the quality of education PhD students and precarious workers (postdoc and hourly paid workers) can provide under these conditions and for the standard of research they can do.”

Conor Anderson, the Graduate Officer for UCDSU has been working with UCD Anti-Casualisation, and he spoke to the University Observer about the current state of PhDs in UCD; “There is no reason to think of PhDs as primarily students, they do not operate primarily as students, they operate primarily as academic labourers. The university runs on the underpaid and free labour of PhD students.”

Both Jones and Anderson agree that the only way things will change is through PhD students organising and lobbying for change, both on the local level in UCD and on the national level. “The classification is not going to change on it’s own, it will change through organised struggle” Anderson told the Observer. Jones said that no minister or university president will ride in on a white horse to fix all of these issues, and that “this issue will only be sorted by the group themselves becoming organised.”

Groups similar to UCD Anti-Casualisation have been established in other Irish universities, and UCD AC has said it will work with these groups to cooperate on common issues.