Graduate students say the increased cost of living has pushed stipends below the living wage, leaving some struggling to pay rent and forcing them to seek second jobs in bars and supermarkets.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s largest single funder, which supports about 105,000 postgraduate research students, has committed to a 2.9% increase in student stipends for the next academic year. But students say this could push them into poverty and are calling for more support to meet the increased costs 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 provided by UKRI to PhD students is insufficient and unsustainable and creates a big diversity issue. They are curating an exclusive community, not providing equal opportunities for all.”
The UKRI increases stipends based on the inflation rate of the previous academic year (2.9% from October 2020 to September 2021). Based on this, full-time MRC-funded PhD students outside London will receive £16,062 a year, and students in the capital £18,062. With inflation exceeding 9%, the stipend works out at £1,104 less than the London living wage once income tax and national insurance exemptions are accounted for, the letter says.
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 had worked pub shifts and completed more than 300 hours of tutoring and teaching during his PhD to pay the bills.
“The universities exploit the fact that they pay us insufficient stipends by encouraging us to sign up for casual work, without proper employment rights,” he said. “This has taken its toll on my free time, energy, productivity, and mental health. If I become ill, such as when I caught Covid-19 earlier this year, I do not receive any sick pay.”
Rebecca Matthews, a PhD in developmental psychology at the University of Reading who is on maternity leave, is unsure if she can afford to return to her research in October.
“Nursery fees for three days are almost equal to the amount I receive for a full-time PhD stipend,” she said. “On top of that I have wraparound care for my older son to consider, and fuel costs for the two hours travelling to and from university.”
Tax-free stipends affect parent access to subsidised childcare, and Matthews said she was ineligible for 30 hours of free childcare because the stipend was not considered a salary. “It really feels like a mum penalty,” Matthews said.
Kathleen Hill, a mature PhD student at Coventry University, said securing accommodation was increasingly difficult and she had had to skip prescription medication and put off visiting the dentist because she was so short of money.
“I am unable to secure a tenancy that is more than 2.5 or three times my income,” she said. With very few rooms available in this price range, she is worried about having to couch-surf or being forced to rent unsafe and unregulated housing.
“We all know that, financially, a PhD. on a stipend is not going to be a great choice,” she said. “Many of us took pay cuts and made sacrifices to be able to research topics that we care about and feel can make a real impact.”
Others described working shifts at Tesco to top up their income and waking up at 4am to do PhD work before office jobs.
The UKRI has said it is considering the issue of providing greater financial support and will give further details in the summer. A spokesperson said: “We recognise the rising cost of living is affecting postgraduate researchers. As such, we are actively talking to other bodies across the sector about whether we could provide further support. We will communicate any decision that results from these discussions as soon as possible.”