USI Vice President for Postgraduate Affairs Waqar Ahmed presented to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further & Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science for pre-legislative scrutiny of the Research and Innovation Bill 2023 on Tuesday, 9 May 2023. 

Opening Statement 

I thank the committee and the Chair for the invitation to participate today. I am the vice president for postgraduate affairs at the Union of Students in Ireland, which is the representative body of students for third level education in Ireland.  

The research and innovation Bill is being discussed at a time when 50% of the Irish academic workforce is on casualised contracts. Postgraduate researchers have no working rights or living wage, and our expenditure on research and development is among the lowest. Furthermore, poor international research mobility, the highest postgraduate fees in the EU, funding gaps and lack of grassroots support has led to a decline for Ireland. Ireland fell in the global innovation index from tenth to 23rd in 2022, over just five years. Our European innovation score has remained stagnant since 2015. The Bill should ensure the fair allocation and distribution of funding in the legislation and follow international standards of good practice that support the recruitment, training and career development of researchers. 

The regulatory architecture being created by the Bill lacks academic representation and puts the researcher out of formation, management and oversight of the new agency. Our experience with the funding agencies that exist has been quite poor. From sick and maternity leave to research funds, the research agencies have always closed their doors to students’ and postgraduate researchers’ concerns. There is nothing in this Bill which will ensure that all stakeholders will be engaged and listened to when it comes to general concerns in future. We propose that the ordinary members of the board should be active researchers from a wide range of disciplines, across all career stages, including PhD and casualised researchers.  

There has been a complete collapse in the provision of supports for researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds, part-time researchers and researchers with disabilities. Education has been and always will be the ladder out of social disadvantage. Unless the Bill supports parity of all kinds of research and researchers, how will it achieve its goals of research and innovation across a wide range of disciplines? How researchers across all stages, especially PhD students, are recognised and supported is largely based on how research is defined.  

The Department’s review of the higher education research system published in 2021 showed that Ireland’s attraction of international researchers is affected by low remuneration levels and poor working and immigration conditions. We need a fair, open and high-quality research agency that caters for the needs of our society. What we do not need from the Government is a two-tier system for international researchers that hinders Ireland’s attractiveness to research and innovation.  

USI welcomes competition and collaboration in the sector. However, the sector has taken a corporate approach to teaching, research and innovation. This is problematic, as it will force third level institutions to become subservient to the needs of the market instead of focusing on social needs and challenges. Funding should be curiosity-driven and not driven by immediate economic gains. The objects of the Bill should be to add excellence in research in all its forms and across all career stages, spanning applied research that includes discovery, blue-skies research and critical and theoretical scholarship, as well as applied research.  

We need a system that allows all stakeholders to come together across STEM subjects, the humanities, arts and social sciences, to drive a research ecosystem which is better, more equitable and more accountable to all stakeholders and not just a few in power. We have strong concerns that the Bill does not adequately protect academic autonomy, parity of esteem and the working conditions of researchers and open research. USI recommends amending the Bill to include an independent review and evaluation of the work of the research and innovation agency every five years, with regular consultation with higher education institutions, researchers, and their representatives on annual plans.  

There has been a lack of consultation and the announcement of the Bill took the research committee by surprise. USI recommends stakeholder engagement through public consultation and structured consultation. Students and postgraduate researchers are looking forward to opportunities for further engagement on this Bill. 

Watch Waqar Ahmed’s opening remarks on the bill:


The full discussion can be found here.


*We would like to acknowledge Students4Change, Irish Humanities, and open letter, signed by over 1,400 researchers for some of the proposed amendments.