Postgraduate students claim that the cost of living has exceeded the living wage, leading to difficulties in paying rent and the need to take on additional jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors. However, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the largest funder of postgraduate research students in the UK, has planned to raise stipends by 2.9% for the next academic year. Though, some students believe that the increase will exacerbate poverty, and are calling for extra assistance to cope with the mounting expenses. Two letters, one signed by more than 5,000 students, were addressed to UKRI this week to inform them of their plight.
PhD students Emma Francis and Hannah Franklin at University College London managed the email, which represented London-based Medical Research Council-funded PhD students. They believed that the present financial support from UKRI was inadequate and unsustainable and contributed to diversity issues. The inflation rate of the preceding academic year determines UKRI’s stipend adjustments, and PhD students not based in London will receive £16,062 annually, with those in London receiving £18,062. With inflation exceeding 9%, the amount fails to meet the London living wage by £1,104 once tax and national insurance exemptions are deducted, according to the letter.
James Hazzard, a PhD student at Imperial College London, revealed that he had worked pub shifts and did more than 300 hours of teaching and tutoring during his PhD to fund his expenses. Moreover, through the exploitation of the fact that the university pays insufficient stipends by the encouragement of taking up alternate employment without proper employment benefits, he is suffering from reduced spare time, energy levels, productivity and mental health.
Kathleen Hill, a PhD student at Coventry University, remarked that the process of obtaining a tenancy was increasingly challenging, and she had to forego her prescription medication and defer her dental appointment due to lack of money. For Hill, enlisting a rental agreement for anything beyond 2.5-3 times the amount of her income is a problematic notion. Since there are few rooms available in this price range, Hill is concerned about being homeless or renting unsafe accommodation. According to Hill, a PhD paid as a stipend is not financially viable, but its sacrifices and reduced wages are worth it since it allows for research on topics that are innovative and valuable.
Additionally, parents claiming tax-free stipends have less access to subsidised childcare, as the stipend isn’t considered a salary. Rebecca Matthews, a PhD student in developmental psychology University of Reading who is on maternity leave, is unsure about continuing her research in October since nursery fees for her three-day care have presumably equated her full-time stipend. She also needs to consider provisions for her older son’s wrap-around care, and the costs of travelling to and fro from university. It feels like a mum penalty to Matthews since the stipend isn’t deemed a salary; hence she isn’t eligible for 30 hours of free childcare.
The UKRI has made assurances that it is looking into the matter of providing greater financial support and will brief its proposals in the summer. A representative quoted that they understand that postgraduate researchers are finding it difficult due to the rising cost of living and are actively collaborating with other organisations within the sector to determine how best to provide additional assistance. As soon as a choice is made, the UKRI spokesperson said they would communicate the details promptly.