Last Tuesday evening, just as Titaś Biswas spoke about a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments, someone derailed the Zoom meeting with a pornographic video.
“I wasn’t very surprised,” said Biswas the day after, sitting outside a café on Dawson Street.
She’s doing her PhD research on “pedagogies of fascism”, she says.
Part of it involves interviewing members of extremist youth groups. “So I have had unwanted people call me, you know, send pictures uninvited,” said Biswas.
The Zoom meeting was called by organisers at the Post Graduate Workers’ Organisation of Ireland (PWO), a union, to talk about the shortcomings of a recent review of state supports for PhD researchers.
Biswas is PWO’s international officer. A surge in xenophobic hate was among the issues impacting students from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), which Biswas said the review – which was published last month – fails to mention.
The disruption precisely at that moment, Biswas says, made it look premeditated but to the point. “To me, it felt like it was pre-planned.”
PWO’s organisers quickly shut down the meeting and set up another. This time, with a passcode that Conor Reddy, the union’s president, emailed out to members.
Running again, the meeting went on for more than an hour as students tried to parse the report’s wording and work out whether universities would now have to follow its recommendations and what it meant for the immigration reform sought by PhD researchers from outside of the EEA.
“Like an academic essay, it talks about the pros and cons of the problematics associated with visas, and I fail to understand if it was like a proclamation and acceptance of the fact that the problematic is indeed there,” said Biswas of the review report at the virtual meeting.
A spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education said issues like equity for researchers from underrepresented groups or upgrading PhD students’ status to recognise them as workers need significant examination.
The co-chairs will do a final review report to look at those outstanding issues, they said. “This first report provides a rich picture, at a point in time, of a range of important issues that now need to be considered by all stakeholders.”
Not for all
The authors recognise the psychological toll of the housing and cost-of-living crises that researchers must navigate on small stipends, it says.
But “at the same time, we recognise that these pressures are being faced by many groups across society and that Government has put in measures to help alleviate them”, it says.
The report recommends increasing PhD stipends from around €18,000–€19,000 annually to €25,000 by 1 January 2024, subject to availability of funding.
But a PWO statement dated 26 June says it is unclear if that recommendation applies to all scholarships.
That the report cites an increase from €18,000 or €19,000 suggests that it might only apply to scholarships sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Irish Research Council (IRC) – those that currently have these rates – rather than those offered and funded by universities, which can be much lower.
A spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education didn’t say whether universities must hike their internal grants up to €25,000 a year.
So far, not all universities have done.
The stipend for students at Dublin City University’s (DCU) School of Humanities and Social Sciences has been raised from €16,500 to €19,000 for the next academic year, according to an email to PhD researchers from the faculty’s dean from March.
“A necessary consequence is that we will offer significantly fewer new PhD scholarships,” says the email.
A spokesperson for DCU said the university welcomes the report’s stipend recommendations.
But it does not want a hike in stipend rates to lead to an even larger decline in PhD student numbers, they said. “Which are already significantly behind government target.”
Universities can’t afford the recommended rate hike without a corresponding increase in government funding, the spokesperson said.
“A budget must be provided, both to universities and funding agencies, in order that researchers are given this much needed increase to their stipend,” they said.
The email from DCU’s faculty dean to PhD researchers also says that researchers must apply for IRC funding.
But non-EEA students like Biswas, a sociology researcher at University College Dublin (UCD), say international researchers in the field of humanities struggle to win IRC sponsorship for their research.
“I have never personally met a single scholar-of-colour working in a non-STEM field, particularly social sciences, humanities, who’s been funded by the IRC,” said Biswas.
Priyanka Borpujari, a non-EEA PhD researcher in DCU’s humanities faculty and a PWO member, says the success rate of IRC scholarships for researchers like her doesn’t look encouraging.
“And it’s like, so weird to, like, apply for it but also don’t have the biggest hopes and expectations for it,” said Borpujari, lounging on a couch at a city café recently.
IRC scholarships are competitive. For each of the past five years, 18 percent of applicants for IRC scholarships have been successful on average, according to its website.
On her phone, Borpujari pulls up slides of a presentation from September 2022 by DCU’s research development officers. One slide says the success rate for non-EU researchers is 8.5 percent for humanities and social sciences, and 5.3 percent for STEM.
During the Zoom meeting last Tuesday, Reddy, the PWO’s president, said he was disappointed to read that the stipend boost, even if it only applies to SFI and IRC grants, is subject to funding.
That’s giving the government free rein to delay it or apply it selectively, perhaps only to new scholarships, he said. “I think reviewers have really let us down here and let government kind of off the hook.”
Down the line
At the moment, the PWO has just over 2,000 members, according to Reddy, its president.
At the Zoom meeting, Matt Murtagh, PWO’s co-founder, said that more than 80 percent of the group’s members mark student papers, and more than 90 percent studying in computer-science fields supervise labs.
Being classed as a worker rather than a student would make a huge difference for non-EEA researchers.
Students accepted as workers are paid salaries rather than stipends, and so also pay taxes and enjoy the benefits of being taxpayers.
They don’t have to live on student immigration stamps. Students from elsewhere have said in the past that they can end up living here for years, yet still be ineligible to apply for Irish citizenship because they are on student immigration stamps.
Some PhD researchers are already counted as workers, like those on the EU’s Marie Curie Scheme, a European Union fellowship programme.
But the report’s co-authors skipped deciding whether or not PhD researchers can regardless of scheme be accepted as workers. It needs further analysis, the report says.
Says Borpujari, the DCU researcher: “It’s just not fair because we’re working, you know.”
On the question of immigration reform, the report’s co-authors recommended that the Department of Further and Higher Education stay in touch with the Department of Justice and the Department of Employment to address any problems.
The report mentions issues around stamp types, spousal access to the labour market, Schengen visas and hosting agreements.
But it doesn’t say what exactly should change, says Biswas. It only points at the different facets of the problem, she says.
“There’s a lot of words and circling around things for us to truly know if any action is going to be taken anytime soon,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it keeps all immigration schemes and permission under review.
Its officials are working with the Department of Further and Higher Education to consider the matters raised in the first report of the Independent Review of State Supports for PhD Researchers, they said.
Both Biswas and Borpujari said they discourage other non-EU researchers from coming here.
“I’ve actively told three people who reached out to me about doing a PhD in Ireland, I’m like, ‘It’s great, but don’t do a PhD here,’” Borpujari said.
At the Zoom meeting, Murtagh, the PWO’s co-founder, said they are working with student unions across universities to hold a ballot in response to the first review.
It will be asking all PhD students, and not just PWO members, if they accept the outcome of the review, he said. “And then have some sort of collective action if they don’t.”
Biswas, PWO’s international officer, says she knows immigration reform isn’t coming soon, but making things better for future researchers is worth fighting for.
“We want to push for something that, if not now, at least in the near future, materialises into something that helps PhD scholars do their research in peace,” she said.