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On Monday morning, Jovan Jeromela and Alok Debnath were working in Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD’s) computer science laboratory.
Paper signs with researchers’ names hung above every desk. After a while, Matt Murtagh stepped into the room.
The three men gathered to talk were all PhD researchers in computer science who had recently unionised to fight for better pay and rights.
PhD students whose research is funded by Irish bodies aren’t considered employees and can’t enjoy the benefits of being a tax-paying worker because their €18,500 annual stipend is tax-free.
But within that group, researchers from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), like Jeromela and Debnath, also face deeper inequalities and precarity of immigration status.
The Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation, co-founded by Murtagh, hopes to bargain for a pay increase and an upgrade to worker status for all researchers.
For non-EU researchers, the group is also demanding more stable immigration statuses, building upon years of campaigning by two groups that have now fused to form the union.
“These are not something that can be changed overnight, but it should be changed sooner than later,” said Murtagh.
A spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education said it has launched a national review of state support for PhD researchers, examining an array of issues, including welfare, support and immigration rights.
“The Review, informed by a robust evidence base, will be completed in early 2023,” they said.
###A Fresh Start
The ongoing government review of the PhD researchers’ scheme is the fruit of campaigning by two groups run by PhD researchers in the past, said Murtagh.
They’d organised a protest outside the Dáil and wrote to government officials before the pandemic.
“Which ultimately was the thing that pushed the government to review,” said Murtagh.
The upheaval of the pandemic put brakes on their efforts. But they’re making a comeback under the umbrella of the new union.
Murtagh said they have only formed the union in the past couple of weeks but have already attracted around 700 members from universities across the country.
Like a Student
On Monday, Jeromela and Debnath laid out an array of inequalities in the system that makes their lives difficult. Among them, policies pitting two groups of non-EU researchers against each other.
Non-EU researchers here on the EU’s Marie Curie scholarship, for example, are considered workers and so enjoy better immigration rights, receiving a Stamp 1 immigration permission to work for two years and then moving on to Stamp 4 or permanent residency after that.
“Because that’s governed by EU institution rules,” said Debnath.
Jeromela and Debnath, whose PhD research is domestically funded, get Stamp 2 permission, though, which is a student stamp. Even though they don’t even have to attend classes, they said, laughing.
“We are asked to publish papers, present workshops, engage with the Irish public at large about the topic of the research we’re working on,” says Debnath.
Student years also don’t count towards citizenship.
The Stamp 2 means that, if they had a partner, as PhD students – who can be older – often do, their partners wouldn’t get the right to work, and couples and families need to live on the small stipend.
These PhD students too are limited in their ability to supplement their family’s income. Those on student Stamp 2s can take on jobs outside of their studies but can’t work more than 20 hours a week during term time.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice hasn’t yet responded to a query sent on Monday asking if it would consider granting immigration permission with better conditions to non-EU PhD students.
Sometimes, Debnath said, partners’ visas get refused over low income, pointing to the case of Ola Abagun, a woman living in Nigeria who had to drop out of her PhD programme in Ireland, after visa applications for her husband and their baby got rejected.
Her appeal was pending for so long that Abagun finally withdrew it, she said on a Zoom call on 13 January.
“I’ve been scarred by this entire experience. We waited patiently, but they couldn’t even dignify us by giving us a solid outcome,” said Abagun. “I never felt so demeaned and dehumanised in my entire life.”
Immigration registration often comes with extra expenses, like proof of health insurance, that employers sometimes cover.
But for non-EU researchers, with a recent jump in the price of student health insurance, it’s an extra €700 they have to pay out of pocket, as students have to do.
“The lowest possible insurance you can get is €700,” said Jeromela holding a white mug featuring his name in black.
The mug is a relic from a conference he had managed to attend. But delays in processing applications to renew Irish Residence Permits (IRPs) mean he misses out on opportunities to represent Ireland in international conferences.
That happened recently. “So, I didn’t even submit any papers,” he says.
To travel around Europe some immigrants from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) need a Schengen visa, and to apply for that, they need to have a residence permit – not just an application in for a renewal and the hope that it’ll be approved sometime.
Jeromal doesn’t need a visa to travel to the Schengen area, but he needs a valid IRP to return to Ireland.
Debnath says they should at least get IRPs valid for the duration of their research so that they don’t need to pay €300 every year to renew, for which, he said, TCD doesn’t reimburse him.
Murtagh says almost 80 percent of 114 respondents to a union survey said their funding body doesn’t pay for their residence permits.
A spokesperson for TCD said it doesn’t currently cover the cost of IRPs for students but will flag the issue “sectorally” with the Irish Universities Association (IUA).
Also, Debnath said he and other non-EU researchers live with the stress of family emergencies in their places of birth, for which there is no space in their research agreements or contracts for those who get them.
“No sick leave, no parental leave, no bereavement leave,” said Debnath.
Beyond these issues, these PhD students also miss out because they are not technically tax-payers as the stipends they live on are untaxed.
Earlier this month, Finance Minister Michael McGrath, of Fianna Fáil, told Green Party TD Patrick Costello at the Dáil that PhD students can’t get the rent tax credit brought in recently to help renters with the increasing cost of living.
Debnath and Jeromela say they’d rather get a decent taxable wage and enjoy the benefits of being taxpayers
The TCD spokesperson said it’s “keenly aware of the impact of the cost-of-living and accommodation crises on all postgraduate research students, including PhD researchers”.
It fully supports students’ demand for a higher stipend and hopes to make it happen “in time for the new academic year”, they said.
A spokesperson for University College Dublin (UCD) said the university, and in particular, one of its professors Orla Feely vice-president of IUA, had called for an increase in stipend in the past, and they’re welcoming the government’s ongoing review and awaiting its outcome.
A spokesperson for Dublin City University (DCU) also said it welcomes the government’s review of the system governing PhD research.
It’s in step with the work within DCU, they said, “and that of the National Framework of Doctoral Education Advisory forum in seeking appropriate stipends for PhD researchers”.
They said that DCU has also made once-off payments of €500 to postgraduate researchers on top of the stipend.
It’s “monitoring any upcoming adjustments accordingly and we also support the scope of the national review around visa requirements and duration for non-EU students,” they said.
A spokesperson for Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) said that it’s very conscious of the financial strain on many of its researchers. “Due to the shortage of accommodation in Dublin and the increased cost of living,” they said.
“Over the past few months, we have been very active in advocating for significant change to the financial supports provided to postgraduate research students, who play a vital role in the research system nationally,” the spokesperson said.
It welcomes the government review and hopes for a positive outcome, they said.
Planning to Leave
Jeromela and Debnath both plan to leave Ireland after wrapping up their research here.
“I’m planning to emigrate,” said Murtagh, chiming in, laughing.
Jeromela and Debnath said they didn’t know about the extent of inequality within the Irish system and thought it was similar to other EU countries.
Later they witnessed researchers and supervisors warn others against moving to Ireland during conferences, said Jeromela.
Once finished here, he’s going back to Austria, where he did his master’s programme and didn’t face financial and emotional burdens, Jeromela said.
Debnath says anyone embarking on a PhD research here is doing it out of sheer passion, and it feels like the system takes advantage of that, instead of respecting it.
“Nobody gets into a PhD for money; they get into it because they’re passionate about the problems they’re trying to solve,” he said.
They all said they’ve unionised to fight so that maybe others’ passion and brilliance is recognised and appreciated.
“It’s too late for us; in two years we hand out our thesis, and we’re gone,” said Debnath as Jeromela nodded.
“We’re doing this so that future PhD students have a decent liveable standard of living,” he said.