Durham University is set to increase the pay of its Law PhD students, following findings that it has been paying them an annual amount below the national minimum wage.
As a result of the revelations, the students will receive a pay rise of £5,000 annually, something which the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has termed a “huge win”.
The PhD students were paid £15,000 in 2022 after having each completed 1880 study hours and 80 hours of compulsory teaching. This meant that they received an hourly pre-tax wage of £7.98 – below the minimum wage for those aged 23 and above: £9.50. This is lower than the figure recommended by governmental body UK Research and Innovation, which was £17,688, excluding compulsory teaching hours. Hence, indicating that they are some of the lowest-paid members of the UK’s higher education sector according to the UCU.
UCU General Secretary Jo Grady slammed Durham, saying: “It is absolutely shameful that a university as wealthy as Durham thought it was acceptable to pay PhD researchers less than the legal minimum wage.
“Law PhD students told us they were taking on many jobs to get by and really struggling to manage everything.”
It is absolutely shameful that a university as wealthy as Durham thought it was acceptable to pay PhD researchers less than the legal minimum wage
– Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary
Durham University had rebuffed notions that students were being paid below the national minimum wage. They argue that the £15,000 amount should not account for research hours as PhD research is unpaid – something that is supposedly the norm in higher education. A university spokesperson suggested that the annual payment solely exists to compensate PhD students for their 80 hours of compulsory teaching.
Mary Kelly Foy – Labour MP for City of Durham – met with the university’s Vice-Chancellor before Christmas, pressuring the university to address the perceived underpayment of PhD students. Noting that she was “glad” about the university’s decision to raise PhD student pay, she also argued it was important that UK universities do much more to address perceived nationwide deficiencies in pay, job security, and working conditions.
The developments at Durham are emblematic of the UK’s higher education landscape. In response to what is perceived to be the continued undermining of staff pay, pensions, and working conditions, over 70,000 UCU members are set to strike for 18 days during February and March at universities including Warwick.