Innovate for Ireland: Is this scheme an extension of privilege and elitism or a new opportunity to contribute to democracy and equality?
PhD research is often seen as a privileged educational opportunity for those fortunate enough to afford it. But things may not be so privileged or elitist with a new Government-industry scheme to widen doctoral level research. The issue is will the scheme help to improve society for the better, based on evidence-based research? Possibly. But the scheme ought to be scrutinised to see what it can deliver, and for whom?
The New Innovate for Ireland Scheme
Collaborations between the government, industry, and academia help maximise research potential. Innovate for Ireland is a new partnership scheme between the government and industry. It aims to establish Ireland as a ‘global hub of talent development’, by ‘attracting and retaining the brightest and best talent’, to ‘transform Ireland’s talent pipeline’. The first phase of the partnership is to recruit up to 400 ‘high calibre’ PhD students, across all discipline areas to research topics such as climate change, global health, and cyber security. The funding will be open to both Irish and international students, and a stipend of €28,000 will form part of the package which will be awarded to successful candidates. The success of the scheme will depend on continued industry support.
What is a PhD?
A Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, is the highest college degree a person can earn. The first PhD was awarded in Paris in 1150, but the PhD only gained prominence in Europe in the 1800’s, before then spreading to the rest of the world. Popularity of PhD programmes has expanded, and the number of doctoral degrees being awarded has doubled over the last two decades. Higher Education Authority data shows there were 9,532 students enrolled on PhD programmes in Ireland in 2020 compared to 8,643 in 2018. PhD programmes typically last for between three and four years, with fees for domestic or EU PhD students being in the region of €4,000 - €9,000 per annum. Attracting non-EU PhD students to study in Ireland is an important part of Higher Education (HE) policy, and non-EU PhD student fees range from between €9,000 to €30,000 per annum. Little, if any, rationale exists for the discrepancy in fees, but many international PhD students argue they are simply cash cows used to support the university system.
Existing Funding Models
Other than the few students who are privileged and rich enough to pursue research at university level, many PhD candidates must search for financial aid. Higher Education Institutes and funding bodies, such as the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, deliver prestigious and competitive scholarships across all disciplines. Thus, a rigorous and proven process of evaluating excellence in research is already established in the HE and research system in Ireland.
The level of financial aid varies depending on the funder, and may include full or partial fee waiver, stipend which can range from €8,000 to €18,500 per annum, and annual research expenses, for three to four years. Each funding award comes with its own terms and conditions including. In some cases, it may include the requirement to engage in formative academic work, such as giving guest lectures, tutorials etc. Such work is developmental and could be considered part of the academic apprenticeship of the PhD, which enhances individual skill and builds a pipeline through craft mentoring, building knowledge, and critical mass into the academy.
However, developmental support can soon turn into unpaid labour by some institutions and university faculty.
A Fragmented Arrangement
There seems to be a growing lack of uniformity with widely different terms and conditions for PhD students. Some scholarships, which are created to provide an equal access pathway to academia, can fall below the cost of living, and may prevent those without personal resources from pursuing an academic career, thereby widening inequalities in HE. The cost of living crisis has exacerbated an already difficult financial situation, and many PhD students are struggling to make ends meet. PhD students have no legal entitlement to statutory benefits, such as sick pay or maternity/paternity leave, and traditional trade unions don’t see them as workers, and therefore are less inclined to offer them union membership. On top of this, an increasing number of PhD students are reporting problems with their mental health.
Storing Up Future Problems?
University research is not always conducted for the benefit of society. The new Innovate for Ireland scheme has specific purpose that may benefit corporations over-and-above other deserving groups in society. Large multinationals already have deep pockets whereas the third sector and charities are often left wanting when it comes to direct government support for research and new knowledge generation. In consequence, societal issues which may be perceived to have little or no economic value or, indeed, areas which critique current popular economic thinking, risk being excluded from the new scheme.
There is an ideology to talent management in the new Innovate for Ireland scheme, which has an emphasis on vested interest (or corporate) value creation. As a concept it has grown since the early 2000’s. While the notion of managing talent has merit, it also raises ethical considerations with how people are categorised, often based on subjective value judgements of those in positions of power and authority. Creating an extra layer of so-called ‘high-calibre’ PhD students adds little, if anything, to scholarship. Instead, PhD students are dehumanised and separated into talent categories, which have supposed values attached to the corporate value of their research, rather than the merit of scholarship and academic excellence. Consequently, academic value seems to be increasingly conflated with economic return, and research in areas with perceived lower economic value, such as societal issues, are undervalued, and risk becoming less attractive areas of research for PhD students.
Casualisation in HE
Having spent four years or more completing a PhD, graduates face an uncertain future. The supply of permanent academic jobs is far less than the growth in PhD graduates and employment in academia, which was once considered prestigious, has become precarious for many. Casualisation is widespread and conservative estimates suggest there are at least as many casually employed academics in Irish universities as there are permanently employed. Inequality is prevalent and gendered. Women undertake the most precarious forms of employment, for example, hourly paid work with no job security or sick pay, and for longer periods of time than their male counterparts. Academics from ethnic minorities fare worse again, and are more likely to be employed precariously and earn less than other academics. Furthermore, precarious work leads to precarious lives and despite being highly educated and skilled, putting down roots proves very difficult for early career academics (ECA) who are employed on precarious contracts. Job insecurity means being ineligible to apply for a mortgage and, indeed, the need to constantly move to follow a career puts home ownership, and often building personal relationships, on the back-burner. Dependence on social welfare over the summer months is not unusual for many students, nor is working unpredictable hours across several different institutions simultaneously over the academic year. This occurs under a cloak of silence, where many precariously employed ECA are afraid to speak out, for fear of the impact on their career.
While the new Innovate for Ireland scheme appears ambitions in expanding PhD research opportunities, how the new ‘talent’ will access jobs, support groups and other worthy knowledge causes outside the corporate world remains unclear and ambiguous. The risk is a well-intentioned scheme is simply storing up future inequalities and added discriminatory problems down the line with a clearer labour market transition to widen research access and dissemination.
Paula Tumulty is a PhD scholar and adjunct lecturer in HRM and Employment Relations in the Department of Work and Employment Studies, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick. Paula’s PhD examines the employment relationship of early career academics.