Particle physics research

Self-funded students are ‘extremely concerned’ about the cost of living

Self-supporting UK PhD students want tuition waivers and access to hardship funds

The self-funded PhD students have called on universities and the UK’s national research funder to provide more support as they struggle to make ends meet during the cost of living crisis.

A number of postgraduate scholars in the UK fund their own studies, with many choosing to supplement their finances with teaching or part-time work. However, increasingly, these students are struggling to get by as soaring inflation and energy bills eat into their budgets.

George Aylett, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Leeds who researches political science, told Research Professional News he was “extremely concerned about the cost of living crisis”.

“Rising prices mean a significant percentage of my budget is spent on essential items,” he said. “Many self-funded postgraduate scholars, especially international scholars, face pressure on top of paying exorbitant tuition fees and all that.”

Aylett said self-funded doctoral students have “received little or no support from institutions.”

In July, the University of Leeds announced it would make a one-off payment of £650 to staff in positions earning up to a certain amount.

However, Aylett pointed out, “postgraduate researchers – many of whom teach and without whom many modules could not have functioned – were not entitled to this payment as they are classified as students rather than staff” .

This payment, he said, “would have made a huge difference to many PGRs teaching and announcements like this don’t make PGRs feel valued at the university.”

A spokesperson for the University of Leeds said the university “considered a number of factors in making the decision on payment eligibility criteria and had to make tough decisions to balance affordability. and for the payment to be meaningful to those who receive it”.

They added: “The university offers a variety of means of support to our entire community, including our postgraduate researchers, and regularly reviews how best to support them, particularly during the current period of economic and social challenges. As other arrangements are confirmed, these will be communicated accordingly.

Aylett and others are now calling on universities, together with national funder UK Research and Innovation, to do more to support self-funded PhD students.

“Postgraduate scholars should be treated as staff members rather than students, which would entitle them to access to cost-of-living payments, universal credit and workers’ rights,” he said. -he declares. It also calls for non-means-tested hardship funds and a tuition waiver.

“Very little help available”

Meanwhile, a self-funded postgraduate biological science researcher based at a Scottish institution told Research Professional News that he is now seriously considering whether or not to continue his studies in light of the crisis, despite working part-time for finance his doctorate.

“As a self-funded student, I knew I would need to fundraise for conference travel, fieldwork, and consumables,” said the student, who did not wish to be identified. “But I’ve also budgeted how much I need to live on and how much it means I have to work each week. The current increases in the cost of living have completely changed that budget.

The biology researcher has considered transferring his PhD to part-time studies to allow him to earn more money on the side, but fears he will no longer qualify for the government tax cut, which is only for students at full-time.

“That would mean I would have to pay more every month, and as a student we don’t qualify for Universal Credit,” they said.

Although their institution offers hardship funds to students, these are “only for unforeseen emergencies, which, oddly, the cost of living crisis is not considered to be,” they added. “So there is very little help available.”

They are now hoping to see their £4,600 tuition fees waived or at least ‘heavily reduced’ to support them through the crisis. “That would be the biggest help,” they said.

The Scottish Government and Vice-Chancellor’s group Universities Scotland both declined to comment.

A spokesperson for the Vice-Chancellor’s group Universities UK said: ‘Universities will give serious thought to ways of supporting self-funded postgraduate students in need during the cost of living crisis.

“However, we need more government support to work with universities on this, and we have just released proposals which include the importance of postgraduate student support.”

They added that the “new contract” promised by UK Research and Innovation for postgraduate research explored how to ensure that doctoral training is an “attractive, affordable and accessible option, and we are committed to supporting this work”. It remains to be seen what attention will be given to self-funded students in such an agreement. UKRI only funds around a quarter of postgraduate students in the UK.

But Alex Kirby-Reynolds and Ellie Munro, co-leads of the University and College Union’s Postgraduate Researchers as Staff campaign, said support to cover the required costs of research and training. They should ensure that all PMPs are compensated for all teaching hours worked at an adequate rate of pay.

“The government must also take steps to provide those using its doctoral loan scheme with additional financial support.”

“No one will be left behind”

Ansh Bhatnagar, PhD student in theoretical particle physics at Durham University and organizer of the PGR campaign against low pay – which has called for increased support for PhD students during the cost of living crisis – said universities and UKRI had a “responsibility to self-funded postgraduate researchers”.

“They have produced multi-million pound funding pots open to self-funded postgraduate researchers in the past, due to Covid, and need to do this again on a larger scale to respond to a larger financial crisis.”

He added that the campaign “will continue to organize so that every postgraduate researcher receives the support they need to get through this crisis. No one will be left behind. »

Earlier this month, UKRI announced it was increasing its minimum student allowance by 10% for the 2022-23 academic year, to £17,668. However, the funder declined to say whether it would consider supporting self-funded students.

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.