Image: Alex Nguyen / Flickr
Image: Alex Nguyen / Flickr

Cost-of-living crisis threatens to push postgraduate students into poverty

Many postgraduate research students (PGRs) claim that they are struggling to pay bills due to the increased cost-of-living, forcing some to earn additional income through working other jobs.

Postgraduate students with studentships receive a stipend to assist in paying academic fees and living expenses. The largest funder, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – a body of the British government – supports roughly 105,000 students.

UKRI has decided that stipends will increase by 2.9% in the next academic year. However, with inflation exceeding 9%, this increase will result in a real-terms cut in income for many PGRs. UKRI decides how much stipends will increase based on the inflation rate of the previous academic year – which was 2.9% from October 2020 to September 2021.

Assuming 8% inflation, UKRI’s intended minimum PhD stipend for next academic year of £16,062 would equate to a real income cut of £1,200 for students outside London.

According to a letter on behalf of all PhD students in London who are funded by the Medical Research Council (part of UKRI), the £18,062 intended minimum stipend would not exceed the London living wage, effectively pushing many students into poverty.

Campaigners argue that stipends at this rate is “inadequate” and make pursuing postgraduate research “unfeasible” for many students, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Graduates generally sign up for PhDs knowing that they will receive less compensation than if they were employed in a graduate-level job. However, with real income falling as inflation escalates, many postgraduate students have been compelled to take on additional work, on top of research projects so that they can cover higher living costs.

Students have reported working second jobs in bars, pubs, and supermarkets, as well as tutoring in order to pay bills and buy necessities.

Additionally, students report being encouraged to take on work for the university, without proper employment rights, with the promise of providing teaching experience and supplementing income.

An open letter to the UKRI has been signed by over 10,000 postgraduate students – more than 1 in 10 of all those funded by UKRI – urging UKRI to raise doctoral stipends in line with current inflation. The letter notes that while UKRI’s method for calculating stipends has historically been effective due to stable inflation, this model is no longer viable. The letter also encourages UKRI to use their influence to lobby for additional support for research students.

In response to this, UKRI has announced that it is considering further financial support for research students, and that any decision will be communicated during the summer.


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