The PGR-led campaign group organising for liveable stipends

The UKRI stipend rate will not rise in line with inflation. Ansh Bhatnagar sets out the grassroots campaign plan organised in response

Ansh Bhatnagar is a PhD researcher in theoretical particle physics at Durham University.

Postgraduate researchers (PGRs) funded at the UKRI stipend rate receive less than the take home pay of a minimum wage worker.

Self-funded PGRs have to rely on additional jobs to support their research. Despite this already sordid state of affairs, UKRI announced earlier this year that the stipend will only be increased by 2.9%. This is despite the UK being faced with RPI inflation already at 11.8% and set to hit 17.7% in the next academic year. In short, a real terms pay cut.

In response, hundreds of PGRs launched a grassroots campaign called “PGRs Against Low Pay”, with three key aims:

  • draw attention to the cost of living crisis affecting PGRs
  • demand that the real terms pay cut is cancelled
  • call on UKRI, universities and the government to work together on a package of support for self-funded PGRs and those with additional needs such as carers, migrants and disabled PGRs.

These demands aren’t exactly radical. We are not asking for the earth; we are simply asking for our current standard of living to be maintained.

The campaign was a success; thousands backed the campaign within the first few days, and the open letter to UKRI now has over 10,000 PGR signatures with thousands more from other staff and students signing in solidarity.

UKRI reponse

Despite the overwhelming show of support for these modest demands, UKRI’s Melanie Welham responded by putting us on hold: telling us that it’s not as simple as spending around 10 per cent of their non-committed spend on ensuring we don’t face a reduction in living standards as this money will be going towards new research commitments. Why would they rather fund new research than support their existing research – the research PGRs are paid to carry out?

If you can not maintain the same value of funding for your existing commitments then new commitments shouldn’t be made, no matter how desirable they are – anything less is fiscally irresponsible. And it’s not even a binary as presented by Welham; our demands amount to only around a tenth of this non-committed spend, leaving the rest for the new research they want to fund.

UKRI also said that we should recognise there are “no easy choices”. But the real difficult choices are not being made by those at UKRI who may have to deal with some additional paperwork; they are being made by those PGRs who are being forced to choose between heating and eating.

Cost of living

Energy bills alone are forecast to increase by around £1600 per person compared to the previous academic year, swallowing up the £400 increase to the stipend four times over. This is just one expense that has already put us in a worse position compared to last year. We also need to pay for rent, food, and transport, all of which are also going up in cost.

Self-funded PGRs paying the home rate also have to pay an extra £96 more out of their own pocket for tuition fees (why are we paying to work anyway?), which are set by UKRI. And if you’re a migrant, expect to pay an increase even greater than that next year.

UKRI have at least acknowledged the campaign and are due to meet with us for talks in early September. But where are the universities? Where is the government? Why is the parliamentary opposition silent? If UKRI won’t commit to adequate support then will anyone be willing to take responsibility for the difficult choices that PGRs will be forced to make?

If I sound angry, that’s because I am. I have received so many stories from fellow PGRs who, in anxious anticipation of the upcoming year, are considering quitting their PhDs because they cannot support themselves. And the pay cuts are not just happening to stipends – they are also affecting the additional sources of income that PGRs rely on such as teaching assistant roles.

Real term pay cut

UCEA boss Raj Jethwa recently boasted about those on the lowest grades, which include only some of the lowest paid PGRs who teach, being offered 9%. Is this really something to boast about? It is still a real terms pay cut. And anyway, surely maintaining the current standard of living for the lowest paid should be of key priority for university employers?

We are proud to be actively organising in the face of what we see as political choices to degrade our living standards, whether they be coming from UKRI, the government, or university employers who underpay PGRs for the teaching that they do.

We believe that UCEA and UUK are committed to underpaying us and offering us casualised, insecure work, and we believe that The Russell Group are using shoddy calculations to lobby against giving us workers rights. The status quo they wish to preserve sees us not qualifying for many benefits that a minimum wage worker would receive, including government cost of living support. These university representative bodies should not get away with degrading our pay and conditions and spreading misinformation.

Organise

As a campaign, we are supporting each other to organise locally, negotiate with university management, and win concessions before the next academic year starts. Our hope is that this can be resolved through discussion, however, the lack of leadership and initiative from university bosses shows that this hope might be unreasonably optimistic.

At Bristol, physics PhD researchers have had to announce a teaching boycott until the university provides them with adequate support. This sort of action is always a last resort – researchers don’t want to lose work when they are already struggling – but it is the only option left when negotiations fail.

For those of us who have already taken contracts and committed to teach, the last resort available to us is industrial action. PGRs should join the union in their workplace, UCU, and back the UCU Rising campaign for sector-wide strike action this autumn. If we don’t stand up for better pay and conditions in the middle of this crisis, when else would we do it?

We can’t rely on the so-called leaders in our sector to protect us from the cost of living crisis. The new academic year is about to begin and so far nothing has been done about this. If we want to stop the real terms pay cuts, if we want some respect and dignity for us and our colleagues, it is up to us to organise and fight for it.

3 responses to “The PGR-led campaign group organising for liveable stipends

    1. At Bristol, physics PGRs are not taking on teaching until their demands are met. It is true we have less leverage (as a direct result of not having workers’ rights, a status quo the Russell Group have been fighting to maintain) but the Bristol action shows that there are still things we can do to win concessions!

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