Cost of living crisis bites for PhDs on ‘inadequate’ stipends

Funded postgraduates could face real-terms pay cut running to four figures this autumn as UK stipends fail to keep pace with inflation

April 5, 2022
Two men carry a mattress over their heads past a terraced house, the walls of which bare graffiti reading "food bank" to illustrate Cost of living crisis bites for PhDs on ‘inadequate’ stipends
Source: Getty

Pursuing doctoral research is becoming increasingly “unfeasible” for many UK graduates as soaring inflation erodes the value of “inadequate” PhD stipends, campaigners have claimed.

While prices rose by 6.2 per cent in the 12 months to February, and inflation is set to hit 8 per cent by June, the minimum PhD stipend of £15,609 set by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will only increase by 2.9 per cent when it is next adjusted for the 2022-23 academic year.

The increase – worth £453 – reflected the rate of inflation last September when UKRI fixed its support levels, which, it said, allowed universities to advertise this information during their PhD recruitment.

However, the rise is now substantially below expected inflation and has prompted criticism from several PhD candidates, who point out that it means they are in effect earning below the minimum living wage, which increased by 6.6 per cent to £9.50 this month.

Christophe Patterson, whose doctoral studentship funded by Durham University is pegged to UKRI’s national rates, said next year’s stipend increase would equate to a real-terms pay cut of £312 if inflation stayed at its current rate.

That cut would be about £1,200 if inflation rose to 8 per cent because he would need a stipend of £17,347, rather than UKRI’s intended £16,062, from September to maintain the value of his current financial support.

“I signed up to do a PhD knowing I would not be highly paid in comparison to other graduate jobs, but I didn’t expect my quality of life to actively decline over the course of my PhD,” Mr Patterson told Times Higher Education.

Alex Kirby-Reynolds, co-lead of the University and College Union’s Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) as Staff campaign, said doctoral students were “already unhappy with inadequate stipend levels from UKRI and those provided by internal university scholarships, which are typically matched to UKRI levels”.

“These already low rates mean that most funded PGRs have non-existent income security, even within their funding periods. They, and other PGRs, are often required to build up debts, take on unhealthy extra amounts of work, and maintain a low quality of living in order to get by,” said Mr Kirby-Reynolds, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield.

“These cost-of-living rises will only push more people into these unacceptable positions, while starting, or continuing, postgraduate research will become even more unfeasible for those from marginalised communities.”

The eroding value of PhD stipends is likely to focus attention on the government’s proposed “new deal for postgraduate research”, which is exploring “how postgraduate research students are supported and developed, practically and financially”.

It follows moves by other sectors to improve the financial support packages to PhD students, such as Germany, which increased minimum payments to doctoral candidates to about €2,674 (£2,328) gross a month last year, which, after tax and other contributions, left PhD candidates with an annual income of about €24,000 (£20,363), according to one Gottingen-based doctoral student.

Several US universities have also reviewed their financial offer to PhD researchers in recent years, with the University of Chicago confirming a minimum stipend of $31,000 (£23,363) from 2020-21.

A UKRI spokeswoman said the organisation “understands the challenges that our communities are facing in the current economic climate”.

Inflation this year would be “one of the factors taken into account as we set the UKRI minimum stipend for the following year”, she added. The latest uplift was “prioritised ahead of UKRI having a confirmed budget allocation, and ahead of other significant pressures”, she continued, stating that the funding and financial support for PhD students remained “under review” and was “a specific area of focus for us in our work on the New Deal for Postgraduate Research”.

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Reader's comments (1)

This is exactly what happened in the 1990s when some very talented students shied away from PhD studies because they couldn't afford it. The same diminution of salaries at the time also led to the egress of many of my colleagues at the time, either to industry or abroad. I guess it'll happen again until someone in the government panics about it.


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