‘This is disgustingly unacceptable’: Revenue tells PhD researcher on €18,500 he may face tax bill

‘Most of us cannot heat our homes and routinely choose between food and rent,’ says researcher

The Revenue Commissioners has told a PhD researcher that he is not entitled to a commonly-used tax exemption on his stipend of €18,500 a year and may face a tax bill as a result. The finding could have implications for many of the estimated 6,000 PhD researchers based in Irish universities.

Many PhD researchers benefit from “scholarship exemptions”, which means they are not liable for income tax, USC and PRSI. Many are in receipt of scholarship exemptions and are provided with application forms to avail of them by their colleges.

Jeffrey Sardina, a PhD researcher in computer science at Trinity College Dublin, recently received correspondence from Revenue which states that the exemption only applies if a person is receiving full-time instruction at a university. He says he is not in receipt of any instruction and now faces a €1,000 tax bill.

“Revenue has told me that this exemption does not apply to me, therefore mandating that I pay over €1,000 extra in taxes out of a budget that is already 22 per cent below minimum wage because of the false pretences under which I was accepted into my PhD programme,” he said.


“My research is mostly self-guided. While I do talk with university staff, such as academics, as a part of my work, this is only as collaborators or advisers, not as teachers, professors or any form of formal instruction.”

In a statement to The Irish Times, Revenue confirmed the scholarship exemption only apply if a person is “receiving full-time instruction at a university, college, school or other educational establishment”.

A spokeswoman for Trinity said it was up to individual students to determine their tax status when completing self-assessment forms.

Mr Sardina, originally from San Diego, came to Ireland three years ago to complete a master of science course at Trinity before taking up his current PhD role. He said it is a full-time post where he is expected to work a 40-hour work week.

“I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones – if you can say anyone working full time for 22 per cent under minimum wage, without workers’ rights, is lucky,” he said. “Many PhDs get far less that €18,500. Stipends go as low as €6,000 and some do not even get stipends at all and, instead, are being forced to pay out-of-pocket to work for universities.”

Mr Sardina, a member of the national committee of the Postgraduate Workers’ Organisation, said the fault lay with funding systems for PhD researchers rather than supervisors.

“I do genuinely love my research and my supervisor. That is the only reason I have not dropped by now. My supervisors have been incredible,” he said. “Instead, I fight to change the broader system – which is, in all honesty, fundamentally abusive to PhDs and post graduate researchers – rather than leave it.”

The stipend given to most doctoral researchers in higher education is a standard rate of €18,500. It is rising to €19,000 this year as a result of a “once off” budget measure.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris announced a national review last year which is focusing on the adequacy of financial supports, grants and whether researchers should be categorised as students or employees.

Trinity recently announced that it will boost stipends for about 200 PhD researchers to €25,000, although Mr Sardina will not benefit from this. He said many are struggling on paltry incomes.

“My rent only takes up 50 per cent of my monthly pay and after food, heating, electricity and medical expenses, I am able to make ends meet but that’s also because I have both demonstrating [teaching] and radio work as secondary income,” he said.

“Most PhDs are not so lucky. Most of us cannot heat our homes and have to routinely choose between food and rent.”

He added: “What results is a system that pushed PhDs not only below a living wage, not only below minimum wage but also below the poverty line. Since we are denied the right to be considered workers, we have no parental leave, sick leave or workers’ rights.

“Worse still, Government tax breaks do not apply to us – since we, as students before the law, do not pay taxes. This is disgustingly unacceptable and a flagrant abuse of human rights.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent