On the Exploitation of PhD Students

Last week the Government of Ireland announced a new scheme intended to recruit “high-level researchers” to PhD programme in Ireland. The scheme, which is a public-private partnership of around  €100 million, will fund around 400 PhD studentships with an annual stipend around €28K, which is substantially higher than the current rate for, e.g., ICR-funded students which is €18.5K.

The call for applications has not yet been issued, so I don’t know how the new scheme will operate. I will, however, comment on the implications for postgraduate landscape in general.

With inflation rampant at the moment, even the IRC level of stipend is difficult for a student to live on (especially in the Greater Dublin area) yet many receive even less than that. Maynooth University, for example, funds many of its PhD students at the paltry level of €10K per annum which is impossible to live on and which forces recipients to undertake large amounts of tutoring or other work in order to get by financially. In my opinion stipends paid at this level are simply exploitative. They exist in order to force PhD students to undertake extensive and poorly paid teaching duties because there aren’t enough teaching faculty to cover what is required. That situation is a direct result of the chronic underfunding of higher education in Ireland. Universities will argue that they don’t have any choice, but that doesn’t make the situation is acceptable.

It is of course good for a research student to get some teaching experience during their PhD but this should be on a voluntary basis. A PhD student who chooses to teach will probably do a better job than one who is forced to do it in order to pay the rent. My basic point, though, is that a full-time research student should be funded to do research full time, and it is grossly unfair to pay them too little for this to be possible.

Apparently the level of the new €28K stipends is “in line with financial supports offered under similar global scholarships”. I take this as a statement that the Irish Government has acknowledged that the proper rate of pay for a PhD student is at this level, which seems to me to be about right. It is howeer about 50% higher than what existing PhD students actually receive. Now it has been explicitly accepted that €28K is the right amount, it seems to me to be logical that all PhD stipends should be increased to this level.

In order to get a place on a PhD course, any student needs to have an excellent undergraduate track-record, so all graduate students are “high-level” researchers however they are funded. This new scheme will create a new tier of higher remuneration for some students, many of whom will be in the same departments and laboratories as others doing exactly the same level of work but at a much lower income with heavy teaching duties to do on top of their research, and who will justifiably feel like second-class citizens. This is unfair and will prove extremely divisive and bad for morale.

I have nothing against the new scheme, but it needs to be accompanied by a drastic “levelling up” (to coin a phrase) across the entire postgraduate system.

P.S. I note that the new scheme costs €100M and will fund 400 PhD students. Maynooth University ran up a surplus of €13.2M during the first year of the pandemic. This is enough to fund about 50 PhD studentships with a 28K stipend. Just saying.

P.P.S. Another difficulty in Ireland not addressed at all by this scheme is at Masters level, where there are currently even fewer funding opportunities than at Doctoral level. Students who want to do a Masters in Ireland usually have to fund themselves whereas they can do one for free – or even get paid! – at other European universities. There is therefore a strong incentive to leave to do a Masters programme.

One Response to “On the Exploitation of PhD Students”

  1. […] time ago I posted an item about the planned introduction of a higher PhD stipend (€28K) for a small number of resear…. It being obvious that he current level of PhD stipends (e.g. €18.5K for IRC-funded studentships) […]

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