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PhD students call for ‘more robust support’ amid cost of living crisis


Stipends in UK remain “insufficient and unsustainable”, despite uplifts, say campaigners

PhD students have called for more action from funders and universities to address the cost of living crisis.

In a letter to the journal Nature Human Behaviour, University College London PhD students Hannah Franklin and Emma Francis said stipends for doctoral stipends “remain insufficient and unsustainable” despite recent uplifts and that “more robust financial support” is needed.

“Despite the severe impact of the cost of living crisis, universities and funders have failed to act promptly,” they wrote, adding that the government “is yet to provide any additional financial relief for PhD students specifically”.

Stipend increases

Last year, national funder UK Research and Innovation announced it would increase the minimum stipend by 10 per cent for 2022-23 to £17,668, following a campaign led by students who were struggling to make ends meet during the cost of living crisis.

Following the announcement, several other major funders and institutions promised similar uplifts, including the Royal Society, the Leverhulme Trust, Cancer Research UK, as well as universities.

At the beginning of this month, UKRI announced a further increase on their minimum stipend to £18,622 for the 2023-24 academic year.

Speaking to Research Professional News, Franklin and Francis said: “We would like universities and funders to recognise that what is currently being financially provided—low stipends and one-off hardship payments—is not enough to adequately support students in this climate.

“There is a need for increased investment in research in the UK and it’s time postgraduate researcher issues were raised and addressed.”

Part-time jobs

In their letter, the students pointed out that some PhD students feel they must take on additional work to get by, which can affect their academic performance and wellbeing.

But having another job is not a “viable option” for everyone, including students with disabilities or care responsibilities, and international students who are restricted to limited work hours, the pair said.

Francis, who is the research students’ officer at UCL’s student union, told Research Professional News she had had to take on part-time work to support herself.

But she pointed out that “many of us cannot fully dedicate ourselves to our PhD due to low stipends forcing us to take up additional work”.

“I am considered fortunate that I can do this. There are PhD students that are not permitted to take up extra work due to funder terms and conditions, and those that face additional barriers such as restrictions on number of hours they can work.”

PhD students, included self-funded ones, have been signposted to means-tested hardship funds for short-term financial relief, but Franklin and Francis said applications to such funds can be “cumbersome and require sensitive information which dissuades student from applying”.

Regular stipend reviews

They call for universities and funders to commit to reviewing and revising stipends regularly to ensure they account for increases in inflation and the cost of living.

“Additional incremental increases over the course of the PhD should also be considered to reflect gained skills, experience and contribution, similar to annual pay rises for academic staff,” they said.

In addition, they said recognising PhD students as employees “would be more reflective of their contribution and would alleviate current pressures and financial insecurity with better pay, rental and mortgage accessibility, and the implementation of employment benefits such as pensions”.

‘Risk of students being forgotten’

A spokesperson for the vice chancellors’ group Universities UK told Research Professional News that universities have “stepped up efforts to alleviate financial pressures during the cost of living crisis”.

“We need to look more closely at how well the current system and government’s own support measures are helping students and what changes need to be made,” the group added.

“Students offer so much to society and there is a risk they become the forgotten group in the cost of living crisis.”

Melanie Welham, UKRI’s people and culture champion, said the funder increasing the stiped for 2023-2024 “shows [an] ongoing commitment to supporting doctoral students”.