PGRs get a 13 per cent increase on their stipends

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is increasing its minimum student stipend by 10 per cent on the previously announced level for the 2022 to 2023 academic year.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It was down to the wire in the end, given the promise to “talk to sector groups on a range of options” and “communicate any decision in the summer”, but on Friday afternoon a post emerged announcing that the minimum stipend from 1 October 2022 will be £17,668 full time equivalent.

This means the minimum stipend level for UKRI funded PGRs will be more than £2,000 more in 2022 to 2023 than in 2021 to 2022.

Accompanying the announcement is an update from Melanie Welham, UKRI Champion for People, Culture and Talent, which says that UKRI’s initial plan has been to provide a smaller one-off payment to students – but having “listened to feedback” it worked up a more substantive proposal.

Does that mean fewer students? Welham acknowledges the issue as follows:

This, and many other scenarios and questions are being explored in the work we are prioritising to inform the stipend rates for the 2023 to 2024 academic year, which we will communicate in the spring of 2023.

Of course, plenty of PhDs aren’t funded by UKRI. But on the basis that when Bagpuss wakes up all his friends wake up too, the announcement will put helpful albeit belated pressure on other funders to follow suit. The pressures on self-funders will continue.

It’s a significant win for the PGRs involved in campaigning for the uplift – Durham PhD researcher Ansh Bhatnagar (who was on the site a few weeks back) has organised significant participation in the campaign and partly credits UCU’s ongoing efforts on PGRs.

It’s notable, I think, that NUS and students’ unions have pretty much been nowhere on this.

One thing that’s fascinating is the lack of detail in the announcement on why the particular figure that has been chosen has been chosen. We’re now looking at a 13.1% increase YOY – not quite the 21 per cent that Citi thinks RPI will get to in the new year, but nevertheless a much higher figure than staff are getting and huge in comparison to the 2.3 per cent uplift that is being applied (in England) to the maximum maintenance loan and doctoral loans.

In theory, the anchor mechanism for minimum UKRI stipend rates makes sense – they are normally calculated a year in advance, using the inflation rate at that time. So for academic year 2022/23, the UKRI minimum stipend was calculated using the ONS Consumer Price Index with Housing (CPIH) rate in the 12 months to September 2021. But using predictions of inflation only makes sense if it undulates gently – it becomes a huge problem if you get a sudden spike, hence the problem and now part-solution.

As such we should examine whether the specific solution matches the specific problem on its own terms. Last year UKRI took CPI to September 2021 (2.9%) and applied it to the £15,609 it was offering in 2021/22 to get to its original offer of £16,062. We don’t have a CPIH figure for September or even August yet, but in July it was running at 8.8 per cent. That’s not to say that 13.1% isn’t needed or justified – I wouldn’t be using CPIH if it was me picking an anchor as it it undercooks real inflation for those on low incomes – but it does make the decision all the more mysterious.

In the announcement, UKRI says the decision is one that represents a prioritised decision emerging from its “New Deal” for PGRs work that it has been undertaking. That suggests that a fresh anchor may be about to be mooted – maybe rooted somehow in a version of the minimum [real?] [living?] wage, which is broadly how Wales works out its uplift to undergraduate maintenance, how Augar proposed uplifting English maintenance and how multiple unimplemented reviews in Scotland have proposed to handle increases. But we don’t, at least yet, know.

On that, if we can’t or won’t pick an incomes anchor for student finance, it would be great instead to see all four nations for all types of student agree a more realistic and nuanced version of inflation based on a better basket. As it stands we have varying degrees of a mess and no clear sense of the size and shape of the gaps between income and expenditure.

But for now, what the decision does do is pile the pressure onto DfE (and its equivalents around the devolved nations) over UG funding, and onto UCEA over salary negotiations. Interesting times.

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