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AHEAD/USI Submission on PhD/Postgrad Scholarships and Disability Allowance

A submission was made to the Department of Social Protection by AHEAD and the Union of Students in Ireland on March 11th 2021 – prepared in consultation with the following students and graduates with disabilities who have expertise and experience in this area: Amy Hassett, Dr Patricia McCarthy, Lauren McCauley, Dr Vivian Rath and other students and graduates who wish to remain anonymous.

We reproduce it here to raise the issues for public discussion and consultation within the sector.

Introduction

AHEAD and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) welcome the recent commitment from Minister Heather Humphreys to sign regulations to ensure that PhD stipends/scholarships awarded to students for postgraduate research will no longer be assessed as income in the Disability Allowance means test. We commend the great work recently by students and graduates affected by this issue in bringing it successfully to the Ministers attention in recent weeks and thank the Minister for her swift action and assurances that the matter will be addressed.

AHEAD and USI have compiled this brief submission based on our shared understanding of this issue in consultation with a number of knowledgeable students and graduates who have campaigned on this issue in the past, to provide the Minister with context on the matter at hand and support the Department to ensure the regulation is fit for purpose and provides support and relief to all students affected, now and in to the future.

Societal and Educational Context

People with disabilities in Europe are twice as likely to live in poverty (European Disability Forum’s Human Rights Report, 2020) than those with no disability, a statistic replicated here in Ireland (ERSI, 2014). They are also less than half as likely to be in employment as their non-disabled peers (ESRI, 2017).

In order to combat the risk of poverty and unemployment, the state must provide better access to further and higher education and enable all students to attain high levels of educational qualification. Research shows that graduates with a PhD are significantly likelier to be working or due to start a job (88%) than those even with a Hons Degree (75%) and typically have significantly higher salaries – on average €44,221 for PhD graduates in comparison to €34,942 for level 8 honours degree graduates (HEA,2019).

However, AHEAD research highlights low participation of students with disabilities in post-graduate study. While 7.1% of undergraduate students are registered with disability support services in higher education, only 2.4% of students are registered (AHEAD, 2020) at postgraduate level, highlighting the significant access barriers present at this level, many of them financial in nature.

The typical stipend/scholarship (between €0 and €18,500) offered to PhD/postgraduate students is around or under the minimum wage and considerably less than a living wage. In some cases, PhD fees must also be paid from this stipend. Most students supplement this stipend with additional/incidental work to make ends meet, but as highlighted above, students with disabilities have a lack of access to incidental work opportunities and may also be for medical reasons, unable to take on additional workload where opportunities do exist. To compound matters, the nature of PhD contracts which are not employment contracts, means that people with disabilities undertaking a PhD do not receive typical employment protections – e.g., sick pay, which is why access to the Disability Allowance/Blind Pension and the Medical Card are of increased importance.

These conditions mean that financially speaking, undertaking a PhD is a major challenge for students with disabilities and can often only be achieved with significant family support. One the one hand, many students with disabilities have significantly higher daily living and learning costs than other students relating to their disability, for example medical service costs, the higher cost of low availability accessible housing, counselling services, specialised diets and increased transport costs.

The added cost of disability is recognised as a major factor in significantly higher poverty rates for people with disabilities in general (ERSI, 2014). On the other hand, students with disabilities, unlike other students, may have significantly reduced opportunities to participate in incidental work to supplement their PhD stipend and make ends meet.

AHEAD and USI believe that financial barriers like these are some of the most significant reasons behind the low participation of students with disabilities in post-graduate study. Of these financial barriers to PhD access specifically, the most significant are those highlighted recently in the media and echoed by many students and graduates with disabilities who have raised it with us in recent months.

The Problem

Current social welfare regulations mean that when a student receives a stipend/scholarship for PhD study from a higher education institution or other state body such as the Irish Research Council, the stipend is assessed as income when determining eligibility for the Disability Allowance, the Blind Pension, the Medical Card and other secondary supports such as the Travel Pass and Rent Supplement. This equally applies to scholarships and stipends given for other types of postgraduate study such as a research masters and it should be recognised, although not explored in depth here, that many similar issues affect people with disabilities undertaking post-doctoral research.

While some PhDs are not funded and additional fees apply, most postgraduate stipends/scholarships awarded typically range in value from €6,000 to €18,500, around or less than the minimum wage. Yet in many cases, the income garnered from a PhD/postgraduate scholarship or stipend can place students over the eligibility threshold for state support and trigger the removal of the Disability Allowance, Blind Pension, Medical Card and/or other important secondary supports such as the Travel Card and Rent Supplement.

Recognising the added cost of living and learning with a disability, as well as the reduced opportunities for additional employment they experience, retaining the Disability Allowance/Blind Pension, and just as importantly for many students the Medical Card, is absolutely essential for many students with disabilities to proceed with PhD study. It is important to recognise that aside from the monetary value of the Disability Allowance/Blind Pension, the safety and health security of access to the Medical Card and other secondary supports are just as important in weighing up their decision to proceed with PhD study.

The current regulations act as a significant barrier to PhD access and leave many students with disabilities considering PhD/postgraduate study with a very difficult and unfair set of options which can be summarised as:

  1. Accept the offer of a PhD/postgraduate stipend/scholarship (typically a max of €18,500 per year as funded through the Irish Research Council), be forced to relinquish the Disability Allowance/Blind Pension, and in some cases access to the medical card and other secondary supports. This option means that students are left earning around or below the minimum wage, but with fewer opportunities to supplement income than others, and where the medical card eligibility has been removed, no free/reduced price access to vital healthcare or medication. Aside from the obvious financial implications, any students who have ongoing health difficulties or require medication/regular or emergency care on a frequent basis feel this option is not possible as it poses a serious risk to their ongoing health.
  2. Request a €0 stipend from their university/scholarship awarding body in order to retain access to the Disability Allowance/Blind Pension, the Medical Card and secondary supports such as the Travel Pass. Despite the often-significant drop in income that this option yields (Disability Allowance standard rate is €10,556 per year), many students opt to take the huge financial hit/risk and choose it because of the health security the Medical Card access brings. This option is financially not possible for many students unless they are supported financially by their family and/or have access to accommodation without engaging with the rental market.
  3. Because both option 1 and 2 are not viable for the majority of individuals, forego the opportunity of undertaking a PhD/postgraduate study altogether.

Understanding the choices above, it is easy to see why participation of students with disabilities in postgraduate study is notably low.

The Solution

AHEAD and USI, in consultation with students and graduates with disabilities with knowledge and experience of accessing/trying to access PhD/postgraduate study, request that to address this issue fully, the Department of Social protection consider the following:

  • In the new regulations which the Minister has committed to sign, clearly outline the following:
    • That income derived from all PhD/postgraduate scholarships or stipends are exempt from the eligibility testing for the Disability Allowance, the Blind Pension, the Medical Card and other secondary supports such as the Travel Pass and Rent Supplement and that students can retain access to these supports throughout the duration of their studies. It is important to recognise in particular that retained Medical Card access throughout the life cycle of PhD study is just as important a factor in removing barriers as access to Disability Allowance/Blind Pension. It is also important to recognise the equivalence of Disability Allowance, Blind Pension and other similar social welfare payments aimed at people with disabilities when implementing the regulation.
    • For clarity within the regulation, outline that the exemption above applies to PhD scholarship/stipends from higher education institutions and other awarding bodies such as the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.
    • That the PhD/postgraduate stipend/scholarship exemption applies regardless of the mode of study - both full time and part-time. Due to the nature and impact of disability, many students may find part-time study a significantly more accessible mode to complete their studies.
  • Once the regulation is signed and issued, ensure details are clearly communicated to social welfare staff, Citizens Information and relevant NGOs to ensure that students can easily access the information they need to make an informed choice around PhD study.
  • Ensure that the new regulations apply to current PhD/postgraduate students as well as future ones and offer an easy path for the reinstatement of the Disability Allowance/Blind Pension where appropriate for affected individuals.

The Importance and Benefits of this Change for Students and the State

AHEAD and USI believe that addressing this issue for people with disabilities will act as a win-win for students, the state, and society at large, with increased access to PhD/postgraduate opportunities for students with disabilities, increased diversity in the research community, further recognition from the state of the commitment to education for all as a public good, and a significant long term economic dividend for the economy.

These regulations would:

  • Stop penalising students with disabilities in the choice to access PhD/postgraduate study, recognise the added cost of living and learning with a disability, and provide certainty and health security for students wishing to better themselves and improve their long-term economic prospects through a PhD/postgraduate qualification.
  • Support the development of a more diverse research community through the facilitation of students with disabilities to build research qualifications. This will in turn strengthen the research output of the nation and provide benefits for our society.
  • Support the state in meeting its responsibilities under the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its goals set out in the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities. Currently, the draft state report on the UNCRPD does not reference access to postgraduate study and this move would signal improved access for people with disabilities in this area.
  • Evidence the state’s commitment to education for all as a public good and its commitment to supporting access for people with disabilities to all aspects of higher education.
  • Provide a significant long-term economic dividend for the state for a no cost/low-cost investment up front, by supporting students with disabilities to increase their employability and earning potential. These higher-earners would return initial investment many times over in the future through increased income tax returns over their lifetime and reduced reliability on state supports post-graduation.  In many instances, the state is currently still supporting individuals who choose options 2 or 3 above in any case, so no additional resources would be expended by the Department of Social Protection in clarifying support for these individuals.

Concluding Statements 

AHEAD, USI alongside student/graduate representatives are happy to meet with the Minister Heather Humphreys, TD, Minister of Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, or a representative of the Department of Social Protection to discuss the contents of this submission if required and hope the submission proves useful in shaping the development of the new regulation.  

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