PhD stipend must keep up with living costs

The PhD student stipend has failed to keep pace with the minimum wage and something needs to change, write Ashley Macmillan and Jessica Calverley.

Last week, RNZ’s Nine To Noon ran a piece on Sweat Equity, focusing on the failure of the PhD scholarship to meaningfully increase over the past 10 years. Combined with increasing costs of living, this has resulted in full-time PhD researchers having to live off less than the minimum wage. The piece was engaging with a recently published academic article on the same topic.

And they’re not alone in their concern. The Otago PhD stipend is $27,000 per year. For comparison, this works out to be about $13 per hour, while the minimum wage is $20 per hour. Graduate Research representatives have raised this concern directly with the university, but the response has been slow and reluctant.

Disengagement from this issue isn’t just disappointing for students, it undermines the university too.

This is because PhD research significantly contributes to and enhances the university’s status and ranking; but if the scholarship does not cover basic living costs, then any potential student who is not independently wealthy, will be unable to start a PhD.

It goes without saying that it will be students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who will be increasingly excluded. And it will particularly affect Maori and Pasifika communities, who already earn less on average than their Pakeha counterparts. Surely, a university which prides itself on its research capacity and innovative thinking, should be trying to challenge and change these inequalities, not contributing to their reproduction.

Of course, it is a complex issue. There just isn’t a simple policy lever that can be pulled to fix it. Housing costs are incredibly high, as are food costs. There are limits on the number of international students able to study at the university because of Covid-19 border closures, which affects the university’s financial resources. None of the things are the fault of either the university, or its students. The university is simply part of society, and as such, it is affected by what is happening in society more broadly.

But as complex as this issue is, it can be addressed. If it was possible to pay a scholarship that was above minimum wage in 2000, then there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be possible now. Of course, ideally, we would still have the benefits of the work done in 2000 to address this issue. But by failing to index the scholarship to the cost of living, the university of the past has undermined the university of the today. Let’s be careful not to repeat this mistake.

So, what is it that we would ask? There are three key things.

1. Take the issue seriously.

The minimum wage exists for a reason. If students cannot afford to live, then they cannot afford to study either. If students cannot afford to study at the university, then the university is failing in one of its central pillars — to educate and support future research.

What’s more, the university needs PhD researchers who are able to dedicate time to their research.

If students have to spend hours at another job just to make ends meet, then they will have less time to devote to their research and risk lowering the research quality. In fact, for this very reason, the university already discourages full-time PhD researchers from undertaking too many additional work hours.

2. Unite

Stop using a ‘‘students v the university’’ type of mindset.

Students haven’t invented the rising costs of living and we are completing PhDs because we believe in education and research. We need the university just as the university needs students. We are in this together and an adversarial approach is not going to get us through.

3. Plan

Of course, there is more than one possible solution, and likely multiple things will need to happen — but this must happen with students. Any solution pretending students don’t matter is just as doomed to fail as solutions pretending the university doesn’t matter. We need each other.

And here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

- Campaign with other groups on the issues contributing to the rising costs of living.

- Universities are public institutions, so lobby the Government for more funding. If financial circumstances mean universities are struggling to serve their basic purpose (education and research), then they need to address this.

- Get all funding indexed to the rate of inflation, so this issue only has to be solved once, instead of being revisited every 10 years.

- Engage with the Government to make good on its promise to reinstate the postgraduate student allowance.

- Stop treating universities like they are a kind of business operation. Yes, universities (and students) need money in order to operate. But making money to function is not the same as making a profit for pure financial growth. Universities are more like not-for-profits. They need to make money in order to sustain and invest in their purpose — education and research.

- Urgently consider the letter on this matter presented by Graduate Representatives to the Graduate Research School.

- Use your resources. University staff and students have lived experience, as well as research expertise in this issue. Make use of this by creating a forum for problem solving which brings all the stakeholders together; and give that forum the information it needs to create good solutions, and the power needed to implement them.

We don’t claim to have all the solutions at hand. And neither do we expect the university to.

But we do think, that by recognising that the university and students are in the same boat and by letting us work together, we will start to come up with the kind of solutions that are so urgently needed.

- Ashley Macmillan, on behalf of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies Student and Community Development Organisation and Jessica Calverley, PhD representative for the Division of Sciences, Graduate Research Student Liaison Committee.


Too funny. Hate to burst your bubble BUT the education system is a business. Big business, in fact. Banks and universities make heaps of money off students trying to earn a degree. Even more for post graduate students studying. Greed is what motivates everybody involved in the process. If you can't afford a post graduate degree there is no shortage of other individuals willing to pay for it out of pocket. When I earned my PhD my wife supported me financially. I also worked part time. A PhD doesn't make you more employable - especially in peace and conflict studies. What, maybe 4 legitimate real world jobs and maybe another 4 academic jobs worldwide. Why subsidise a dead career field? Leverage students and teachers lived experience? It's lived but not in the real world. There isn't much call for peeing on the flames of a burning sofa in the real world. It's hard to support your superior research skills given the lack of research demonstrated. In short, the letter is total rubbish!