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Postgrad researchers are vulnerable to abuse, campaigners warn

Student reps say there is an “abusable culture” in academia and those suffering bullying are afraid to speak out.

POSTGRADUATE RESEARCHERS ARE increasingly vulnerable to bullying, abuse and harassment in Ireland’s third-level institutions, Conor Anderson, graduate officer of UCD Students’ Union, has said.

Anderson said that the situation is getting worse, with the lack of secure contracts and, in particular, the reliance of PhD candidates on their supervisor leaving precarious academics open to “not a culture of abuse, but an abusable culture”.

  • (Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project delving into precarious contracts in universities and institutes of technology.)

Some of the incidents that have been reported to Anderson and by Paul*, a postgraduate who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, include:

  • PhD supervisors refusing to give feedback on a chapter, sometimes for weeks or months.
  • PhD students informed of scholarships or grants they can apply for if they carry out teaching work, only for that scholarship never to materialise. “I advise students to get this in writing, because they can go back on that promise,” said Anderson.
  • PhD supervisors have “soft power” over their students, and students rely on their goodwill to get regular access to labs, be notified of relevant academic conferences, and have chapters reviewed. “Information or resources can be quietly withheld and it’s difficult to prove that it amounts to bullying when you don’t even know about it,” according to Anderson.

A number of organisations comprised of precariously employed academics, including Precarious Academics, the TCD PhD Workers Rights Group and the UCD Anti-Casualisation Group, have been campaigning for change.

The treatment of PhD and postdoctoral candidates can vary significantly between academic departments within the same university, college or institute of technology, said Anderson.

I’d emphasise that the large majority of academics are hugely supportive of their students, and if you have a PhD supervisor who believes in empowering students, you can have a really positive experience. But if you don’t, your experience can be really negative.

Paul said that his supervisor is very supportive, but that he and other doctoral and postdoctoral researchers still face precarious working conditions, often surviving on as little as €16,000 a year (below the minimum wage) or less, while trying to pay rising rents and, at the same time, trying to hold down one or two part-time jobs to make ends meet.

“We have no rights when it comes to our positions as teachers and researchers. Because we are not treated as workers – despite the research output we generate for our universities and institutes – there is nothing to stop, for instance, a supervisor calling us at 10.30pm on a Friday night.”

There is little to no readily-available quantitative research on students who experience abuse, harassment or bullying by their supervisors.

“I can’t say if it is common [for postgrads and postdocs to experience bullying], but it is normal,” says Anderson.

You hope it won’t happen, but a PhD supervisor has enormous power over their student’s thesis and their entire academic career.

Students can be reluctant to complain because of the length of the process or in case they are seen as troublesome, according to student representatives.

Precarious contracts 

Shaz Oye, the president of Trinity College Graduate Students Union, said that the casualisation of academic employment extends long beyond a completed thesis and is linked to an ongoing funding crisis in education.

In 2016, a report to the Minister for Education and Skills found that 42% of lecturers in universities and institutes of technology were either on part-time or temporary contracts.

Student representative groups and academic unions, including the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which represents lecturers in institutes of technology, have raised concerns that the increased reliance on non-Government sources of funding is leading to less transparency and accountability in the sector.

Anderson said that universities have money, as evidenced by the amount of building happening on campuses but “they’re just not spending it on student welfare.”

During this election campaign, the Irish Universities Association has been campaigning for all the political parties to commit to increased funding of education, with a particularly active campaign on social media using the hashtag #FundHigherEd.

At a debate organised by the IUA on 28 January, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd-Barrett said that the Government spends €6,915 on grant aid per horse but only €4,396 per student.

Academic uncertainty investigation

Do you want to know more about how prevalent precarious contracts are in the third-level sector in Ireland?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into how universities and institutes of technology are allowed to employ so many researchers and lecturers on these contracts.

They also want to look at the impact that short-term and temporary contracts are having on the sector as a whole.

Here’s how to help support this proposal> 

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