The UK’s broken PGR support system must be fixed

The cost-of-living crisis is bringing to a head the inadequacy of current funding and support for doctoral students, says Ellie Munro

September 26, 2022
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UK Research and Innovation’s recently announced 10 per cent uplift to its postgraduate researcher (PGR) stipends came as a relief for many.

The previously announced stipend increase for 2022/23 was only 2.9 per cent. With spiralling energy costs and ever-rising inflation, this left many PGRs wondering if they would be able to afford to continue their PhDs. In the WhatsApp groups for “PGRs Against Low Pay”, a campaign launched by members of the University and College Union, PGRs expressed panic about how they would afford to heat their homes, pay their rent, and buy food while stuck on a stipend that, by most measures, would see them in fuel poverty. This fear was compounded by their “student” status, which means they are excluded from all the government financial relief for cost-of-living pressures because they do not count as employees. Over 10,000 PGRs signed the campaign’s open letter demanding change.

In winning the 10 per cent rise, campaigners have set a huge precedent. UKRI, however, has so far been unwilling to update its existing policy on how stipend rates are calculated, which is based on economic data that is two years old. Without this change, continued large-scale, time-intensive collective action will be needed for PGRs to maintain existing levels of financial security in the face of predicted levels of inflation over the course of the academic year. While UKRI has stated that it will reconsider the formula in the long term, such words will be of little comfort to current PGRs – particularly given the previous and ongoing resistance they have faced.

The problems with the PGR system do not just sit with UKRI, however, which only funds about 20 per cent of all PhDs in the UK. Nor are they caused – but, rather, are exacerbated – by the cost-of-living crisis. The much-promised New Deal for Postgraduate Research, on which UKRI is currently consulting, has a key role to play in producing a long-term, systemic solution here. If UKRI wants to fulfil the ambitions of its Research and Development Strategy with this “new deal”, then the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will also need to put its hands in its pockets and work with universities to fund PhD wages that truly respect the nature, quality and importance of the work that all PGRs undertake. Without this, de facto requirements for individuals to have access to independent wealth will invariably limit the postgraduate research system’s ability to promote innovation, equity and academic freedom.

The New Deal needs to be a radical re-evaluation of how the UK’s PhD system works. It needs to provide a better deal for all PGRs, regardless of funding, background or visa status. It needs to recognise the wide range of reasons people do PhDs: academic careers, professional development and lifelong learning, all of which are equally valid.

It also needs to recognise and combat the sense of professional and social dislocation that is baked into the current PhD. Too often, PGRs are excluded from both staff and student systems, performing the same tasks as members of staff but without the same status or legal entitlements, such as access to childcare support, bereavement leave and employment protections. And when PGRs complain – for instance, in relation to their disproportionately high experience of sexual violence – universities often fail to investigate properly, leaving complainants with little right to recourse.

Moreover, if PGRs are unable to win one of the highly competitive funding awards, they have to pay for the privilege of doing their work. In the case of international students, this cost is four times as much, or more, as it is for home students. Collectively, these, and other challenges, ensure that people without sufficient privilege are often lucky to even survive the PhD.

The UCU’s “PGRs as Staff” campaign does not view extending staff status to PGRs as a magic bullet, which will solve all the systemic problems of the PhD. That UCU staff members are having to ballot for strike action yet again over a range of issues is testament to this. Our submission to the New Deal consultation acknowledges the complexity of the issue and, instead, proposes a multi-track model as a starting point for how the system might be radically reformed in the best interests, financially and otherwise, of all PGRs.

It should not have taken 10,000 PGRs to push UKRI into action over the cost of living, but campaigners will not stop now. Every single university needs to offer a stipend rise that is equal to or better than UKRI’s. Universities also need to support self-funders – especially international self-funders – who are having to pay substantial fees and who are sometimes unable to access even university hardship funds.

Beyond this, PGRs are going to have to continue pushing universities, UKRI and the UK government to think seriously about fixing this broken system – so that current and future cohorts can do more than just “survive” the PhD.

Ellie Munro is co-lead for UCU’s PGRs As Staff campaign, a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham and a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University.

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