Postgraduate students say the rising cost of living has seen the stipend fall below the living wage, leaving some struggling to pay their rent and forced to find second jobs in bars and supermarkets.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s largest single funder supporting around 105,000 postgraduate researchers, has committed to increasing student bursaries by 2.9% for the next academic year. But students say it could push them into poverty and are calling for more support to cover the rising cost of living.
UCL’s Emma Francis and Hannah Franklin coordinated the letter on behalf of all London-based PhD students funded by the Medical Research Council, which is part of UKRI. “The current level of funding UKRI provides to postgraduate students is insufficient and unsustainable and creates a major diversity challenge,” Franklin said. “They curate an exclusive community without providing equal opportunities for all.”
UKRI increases scholarships based on the inflation rate of the previous academic year (2.9% from October 2020 to September 2021). Based on this, MRC-funded PhD students outside London will receive £16,062 a year, while students in the capital will receive £18,062. With inflation above 9%, the stipend is £1,104 less than the living wage in London, subject to income tax and national insurance, the letter said.
A second open letter to UKRI more than 5,000 graduate students signed up this week.
James Hazzard, a postgraduate student at Imperial College London, said he worked in pub shifts and spent more than 300 hours tutoring and teaching during his PhD to pay the bills.
“Universities are taking advantage of the fact that they pay us an insufficient stipend to encourage us to sign up for casual work, without proper employment rights,” he said. “It affected my free time, energy, productivity and mental health. If I get sick, like when I caught Covid-19 earlier this year, I don’t get any sickness benefits.”
Rebecca Matthews, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Reading, who is on maternity leave, is not sure if she will be able to afford to return to her research in October.
“The fee for three days is almost the same as what I get for full-time graduate school,” she said. “Also, I have the full care of my eldest son and the fuel costs of the two-hour journey to university and back.”
Tax-free stipends affect parents’ access to subsidized childcare, and Matthews said she is not eligible for 30 hours of free childcare because the stipend is not considered wages. “It’s really like a mom’s fine,” Matthews said.
Kathleen Hill, a mature postgraduate student at Coventry University, said it was becoming increasingly difficult to find accommodation and she had to give up prescription drugs and postpone dental appointments because she was so short of money.
“I can’t afford rent that’s 2.5 to 3 times my income,” she said. With very few available rooms in that price range, she’s worried she’ll have to couch surf or be forced to rent unsafe and unregulated accommodation.
“We all know that financially, a Ph.D. scholarship is not going to be a great choice,” she said. “Many of us have taken a pay cut and made sacrifices to be able to research topics that interest us and that we believe can have a real impact.”
Others described working shifts at Tesco to supplement their income and waking up at 4am to do PhD work before office work.
UKRI said yes the issue of providing more financial support is under consideration and will share more details in the summer. A spokesman said: “We recognize that the rising cost of living has an impact on postgraduate students. So we are actively talking to other bodies in the sector about whether we can provide further support. We will communicate any decision resulting from these discussions as soon as possible.”