Graduate students say the higher cost of living has pushed stipends below the living wage, leaving some struggling to pay rent and forcing them to look for second jobs in bars and supermarkets.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s largest funder, supporting around 105,000 postgraduate research students, has committed to a 2.9% increase in scholarships for the next academic year. But students say this could push them into poverty and are asking for more support to cover the higher cost of living.
Emma Francis, based at UCL, who has coordinated a letter on behalf of all London-based PhD students funded by the Medical Research Council, which is part of UKRI, said: “The current level of financial support that UKRI is providing to PhD students is inadequate and unsustainable and creates a major diversity problem. They are an exclusive community and do not provide equal opportunities for everyone.”
The UKRI will increase stipends based on the inflation of the previous academic year (2.9% from October 2020 to September 2021). On this basis, full-time MRC-funded PhD students outside London receive £16,062 per year and students in the capital £18,062. With inflation at over 9%, the stipend will work out at £1,104 less than London’s living wage once income tax and national insurance exemptions have been accounted for, the letter said.
A second open letter to UKRI this week has been signed by more than 5,000 graduate students.
James Hazzard, a PhD student at Imperial College London, said he’d worked in pub services during his PhD, tutoring and tutoring for more than 300 hours to pay the bills.
“The universities are taking advantage of the fact that they are not paying us enough stipends by encouraging us to enroll in temporary work, without proper employment rights,” he said. “This has taken its toll on my free time, energy, productivity and mental health. If I get sick, like when I got Covid-19 earlier this year, I don’t get sick pay.”
Rebecca Matthews, a PhD in developmental psychology at the University of Reading who is on maternity leave, isn’t sure she can afford to return to her research in October.
“The daycare for three days is almost equal to the amount I receive for a full-time doctoral stipend,” she said. “In addition, I have to consider taking care of my oldest son, and fuel costs for the two-hour journey to and from university.”
Tax-free allowances affect parents’ access to subsidized childcare, and Matthews said she was ineligible for 30 hours of free childcare because the allowance was not considered a salary. “It really feels like a mother’s punishment,” Matthews said.
Kathleen Hill, an adult doctoral student at Coventry University, said it was becoming increasingly difficult to find shelter and had to skip prescription drugs and postpone a visit to the dentist because of so little money.
“I am unable to get a lease that is more than 2.5 or three times my income,” she said. Because there are very few rooms available in this price range, she worries that she will be forced to sit on the couch or be forced to rent unsafe and unregulated housing.
“We all know that, financially speaking, a PhD. being on a stipend will not be a good choice,” she said. “Many of us have gone through pay cuts and sacrificed to be able to research topics that we think could have a real impact.”
Others described working shifts at Tesco to supplement their income and waking up at 4 a.m. to do PhD work before office jobs.
The UKRI has said it is considering the issue of providing more financial support and will provide more details in the summer. A spokesperson said: “We recognize that the rising cost of living is affecting postdoctoral researchers. As such, we are actively in discussions with other industry bodies as to whether we can provide further support. We will communicate any decision arising from these discussions as soon as possible.”