The plight of working as a postgraduate in UCD

Image Credit: UCD Postgraduate Workers Alliance

Op-ed; UCD Postgraduate Workers Alliance

Academics on campuses throughout Ireland, and globally, have long been aware of the dire conditions facing most of the workers engaged in research and teaching at third level education. They have also long been aware of the limited employment opportunities open to them and the scarcity of stable employment guaranteed by permanent contracts. Postgraduate workers are used to keep the cost of teaching low. PhD researchers are treated as ‘students’ rather than as workers, thereby justifying their low stipends (as low as €500 a year, often including teaching work). They are struggling to make ends meet on low pay, and carrying out unpaid work, kept silent by the promise that this will eventually lead to better conditions, and a contract of employment. For most, it only leads to further precarious working situations. Many will give up on their research or leave teaching because they cannot meet their basic costs. University managers do not mind, they will sell the same promise to another group of workers and get another few years of cheap labour out of them before they too start to question whether they can survive in academia.

In recent weeks, a welcome in-depth investigation by Noteworthy, the investigative arm of The, shed cold light on this intolerable situation. We, members of UCD Postgraduate Workers Alliance (UCD-PGWA), welcome the new media focus on the conditions faced by academics throughout the country. Furthermore, we salute those academics who spoke to Noteworthy; it is not easy to poke your head above the parapet.

Credit is also due to those elected representatives, including Paul Murphy TD of RISE, who have raised this issue recently in the Dáil. Murphy put questions to Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Convention Centre and received predictably mealy-mouthed platitudes in response. We received the message loud and clear: the government will not act to resolve the issues facing postgraduate workers.

Recently, a new Department of Higher Education has been established with Simon Harris of Fine Gael at the helm. At least one of the third level trade unions that represent academics have taken a naïve approach in welcoming this development. We would do well to remember how Harris handled the trolley crisis, the state of the HSE, the cervical smear scandal, and, most recently, the bungled response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Harris will be no friend to workers. His promise of a €250 compensation in student fees during Covid has already proven vague and does not address the reduced quality of education moved online with little to no support to teaching staff or students.

Academic workers must come together, for better working conditions and fair pay. Green shoots exist in the form of various campaigns groups (like ourselves in UCD-PGWA, Postgraduate Workers Alliance Galway, and the TCD PhD Workers’ Rights Group) that have sprung up organically on various campuses. These groups are attempting to push back and get organised against the unbearable situation academics find themselves in. If you’re reading this as an academic on a campus, it is likely one of these groups already exists: join it and contribute! If not, talk to your colleagues and form one! If you are a student and reading this, it may shock you to learn of the situation faced by those who teach you and mark your work. At UCD, as little as €1 is paid per essay script, which unfortunately has an inevitable effect on the quality of the marking, feedback, and student education.

The Noteworthy article reports disturbing cases of exploitation of teaching and research staff. Overall, we believe this situation ought to be viewed within the context of the corporatisation of university campuses in Ireland and adoption of the gig-economy by top brass on campuses, most of which are on massive salaries and long-term contracts themselves. Nevertheless, we think it is time academics at different levels of this unsustainable structure reflect on this situation. Many academics at the lower rung of this hierarchy have internalised the logic of the market and compete with one another in a ruthless race to the bottom. Although some senior staff, with secure contracts, offer solidarity to those below them from time to time - solidarity which we always welcome and seek to strengthen - others have unfortunately remained silent. It is the labour of those below that allows many of the senior staff to gain their own personal funding, recognition and publications.

Most importantly, university and college managers would find themselves in a quandary if tutors decided to withdraw their labour or to sabotage examination grading, especially during this end-of-term period. The one or two lecturers on a module would be faced with the prospect of correcting hundreds of papers. It would be unmanageable. The loss of pay would not even be that great for tutors since, again, the pay for correcting mid-terms for hourly-paid workers can be as low as €2 per paper, meaning tutors can make as little as €6 per hour for grading three papers, and would barely meet the minimum wage for correcting 5 of them. Indeed, the rates for hourly-paid work were cut in 2011 as part of the austerity measures in the public sector and never restored, although a process of pay restoration for public sector employees has taken place, which has not included us. This unfair pay is unsustainable as it leads to unreliable and improper grading of students’ essays.

For those like us who are underpaid, and to students who unfortunately face the consequences of this system while paying ever-increasing fees, we ask you to join or support a trade union or a campaign group and direct your energy at those university managers responsible for the situation. We have been atomised by this system, now is time to join forces in solidarity.