Ireland’s housing crisis puts the squeeze on PhD researchers

PhD students dedicate their lives to their areas of research but are being tested to their limits by Ireland’s housing crisis

Imagine a job where you worked 40 hours a week, were required to produce work of a high standard for your employer and expected to spend much of this time in the office. Now imagine what that job would be like if you were paid below minimum wage, had no access to social insurance and no right to resolve disputes at the workplace relations commission. PhD researchers in Ireland exist in this strange space, a grey area where they face almost all the requirements of employment with none of the benefits.

All PhD researchers, whether funded by the state or by third parties, are classified as students. Despite their insistence to the contrary, this is an arrangement that seems to only benefit the universities of Ireland. These are institutions that have become underfunded to the point of being entirely reliant on the unpaid labour of their PhD students to maintain their status and to teach the tens of thousands of undergraduate and masters students moving through the college conveyor belt.

The average stipend in Ireland is one of the lowest in the European Union and significantly below the cost of living, especially in Dublin – even the highest stipends offered are 22 percent below the national minimum wage, let alone living wage. This is surprising considering that Ireland is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe.

Many PhD researchers face difficulties in finding affordable accommodation, often ending up paying at least two thirds of their salary to cover rent and household expenses, if they are fortunate enough to find a place at all.  Most PhD researchers are left with poor quality accommodation, often far away from the university, resulting in additional time and money spent on commuting, further adding to the physical and economic toll of an already difficult job.

Furthermore, they often have to share these crowded houses with several others, lacking personal space and the necessary environment for studying, which adversely affects their personal growth and the overall research quality within Irish academia.

Despite most PhD researchers being in their mid twenties and above, it is not uncommon to find them reduced to sharing a single room in a crowded house. The situation becomes even more challenging for international researchers, members of the LGBTQ+ community and individuals with disabilities. These groups face even fewer options when it comes to finding a safe place to live. In a market-driven economy where supply and demand play a significant role, they are often forced to pay higher prices and to compromise too many other aspects. Thus, this situation further contributes to societal inequalities by granting doctoral degrees predominantly to straight European men who frequently already possess a privileged economic background. Moreover, for those who have a pet, it becomes almost impossible to find a place. Those coming from other cities or countries are forced to give up an important part of their lives or reject the opportunity.

Many in Ireland view PhDs as a marker of wealth and privilege. However, the truth is that most PhD researchers are simply those most passionate about their area of research to the point of dedicating their life to it, a trait which transcends economic and social boundaries. In reality, PhDs are like most working in Ireland in 2023 – they get up early, they brace for their long commute and ultimately produce work that elevates not only their reluctant employers but also Irish research as a whole. The difference is that they have to do so without the protections, support and fair pay that every other worker in Ireland is entitled to. PhD researchers are the backbone of the Irish research economy and frankly, they deserve better than the pittance they are offered. Postgraduate workers are recognising that this situation is intolerable and unjust, and are organising together to bring into being the necessary changes by fighting for proper ‘working status and liveable incomes’

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