On Wednesday, 16 September, I logged into Twitter to see “NUIG” trending on my feed. I graduated from the National University of Ireland – Galway (NUIG) with my PhD in Political Science in March 2018, and was curious to see why my alma mater was getting so much attention on the platform. To my chagrin, this attention was extremely negative – a screenshot of an email that had been sent that afternoon by the Dean of Graduate Studies (Professor Dónal Leech) to all postgraduate researchers was being circulated widely. The email stated:
“As the University prepares for the resumption of Teaching and Learning Activities this may entail the return of post-graduate research students to campus to undertake unpaid teaching contribution. This unpaid teaching contribution may be remote, online, or on-campus in a location occupied by other students (e.g. lecture/room, laboratory, fieldwork, etc).”
The email created quite a stir – and I read through a series of posts and comments, displays of solidarity from other Irish-based and international researchers, along with many expressions of shock that such a practice existed and that the Dean’s attitude was particularly tone-deaf during a global health emergency. Calls to sign a petition drafted by the well-organised postgraduate coalition, the NUIG Postgraduate Workers Alliance, were also shared.
I reached out to a friend who is the final stages of their own PhD at NUIG to get the scoop. They told me that the recently appointed Dean has been “saying the quiet stuff LOUDLY”, boldly making comments that previous Deans have skated over and purposely kept more or less hidden for years. This includes the expectation that postgraduate researchers at NUIG must teach without pay.
It is important to note that, as you may have already observed, I do not use the patronising phrasing that Dónal deployed in his email: “postgraduate research student”, but rather “postgraduate researcher”. Many of these individuals, including PhD candidates and fellows, are working in a full-time capacity – producing work that the University technically owns due to the terms of their respective programmes and funding. These workers, as that is indeed what they are, are trapped in a perpetual in-between – expected to carry out responsibilities of University staff (such as independent research, teaching, marking, proving support to students and administrative work) without the title and the security or benefits it affords. They are not students, nor are they considered staff members.
The news/Twitter fury made me reflect back to my own experience as a PhD fellow at NUIG. In August 2013, I moved to Galway to start my programme in the College of Sociology and Political Science. I received a scholarship that covered my fees and provided me with a monthly living allowance of 890 EUR (in total). The amount of this untaxed stipend remains, to the best of my knowledge, the norm for many current PhD candidates. However, lucky for me this was 2013, there wasn’t a pandemic and living costs in Galway City were not as exorbitant as they are today – I found a room to rent in the city centre walking distance from the University for 315 EUR/month, plus bills. I lived on the Super 6 deals at Aldi and Lidl. For four years I made it work.
It was expected that recipients of my scholarship would carry out undergraduate teaching in addition to doctoral responsibilities – and I was told I was going to have to teach tutorials for an average of 3 hours per week for 3 out of the 4 years of my awarded funding. I was also advised to start the teaching in Year 1 of the PhD, to ensure that I would not have it “hanging over my head” in Year 4 when I was striving to submit my thesis. This teaching was framed as essential for my own personal development as an academic, and it was unpaid.
For three years I led hour-long tutorials with first year undergrads in sociology and political science. It was my first teaching experience in third level. At the time, payment for tutorials was around 26 euro/hour (applicable to the University’s abundant number of casual, hourly contracted employees) – and I shudder when I think of how much that extra 78 EUR/week would have helped me cope financially. I also was told that the materials required for this teaching would be handed to me; all I had to do was go into the classroom and deliver. I found this to certainly not be the case, and I had to perform a number of hours of preparatory work each week, a workload that was (in all likelihood) intensified for me as a non-Irish person who had never taken an Irish politics class before, let alone taught one. I still remember researching the origins of Irish political parties, trying to answer student questions about the difference between the Dáil and the Seanad… as well as the cringe-worthy moment I first attempted to pronounce the word “Taoiseach” in class.
Not only was this teaching tedious and completely unrelated to my doctoral project, it was also extremely disruptive. I was left drained on teaching days, with no energy to do my own work. In addition to teaching, the role also involved marking and providing each student written feedback on performance – and I remember being completely overwhelmed my first year as I attempted to grasp the (foreign to me) Irish third level grading scale for the first time. I also had 50+ tutorial students that year… which meant as many essays. This work was, needless to say, also unpaid.
Fortunate for me, I had a supervisor who supported me with additional paid teaching opportunities related to my own research interests –especially in my final two years of my PhD. I had the opportunity to guest lecture on a MA programme in the Centre for Global Women’s Studies, and was paid lecture-hour rates (45 EUR/hour – an absolute fortune, until understood within the context that each average lecture hour delivered required an additional 3+ hours of preparation). This teaching served as a rewarding and true developmental experience.
I am fully aware that my teaching experiences at NUIG, both the good and the bad, are not universal. For example, I came across colleagues in different departments who were not required to do unpaid teaching (even though they were funded from the same scholarship as I was) and others with much fewer unpaid teaching hours. Others received much less pay, for much more work. I recall when a colleague, a PhD researcher in the Irish Centre for Human Rights, asked if I wanted to cover a two-hour guest lecture on a course for second year undergrads. When I asked about payment, their face fell – and they revealed that they were in fact coordinating the entire course without pay, including teaching, and there wasn’t a hope that I would receive any.
This past weekend, I spoke with another close friend, also a recent NUIG PhD graduate. We spoke about the email, the unpaid teaching and the recent extremely admirable, organised actions of current NUIG postgrad researchers to hold the university accountable for their treatment. “Well,” they said, “all I can say is fair play to them. We just put up with it, and it looks like they aren’t.” I whole-heartedly agree.
To read and sign the open letter drafted by the NUIG Postgraduate Workers Alliance, see
Dr. Amie Lajoie
Amie Lajoie is a senior researcher at the think-tank TASC, working on projects that investigate the ways public services and institutions can better serve the needs of marginalised persons and groups in Ireland.