Int’l PhD students being “left behind” amid cost of living crisis

Published 16/09/2022

International PhD students studying in the UK are facing a uniquely difficult winter as new stipend increases fail to cover bases and “leave them behind”.

The UKRI announced on September 2 that stipends would increase by a further 10% in 2022, coming to effect on October 1, 2022, but for international students, these increases will barely cover the cost of their “soaring” fees.

“The announcement by UKRI over stipend increases is a good step forward however it does not go far enough, I believe there needs to be more financial support especially for international and self-funded PGRs,” George Aylett, one PhD student at Leeds University, told The PIE News.

“Many self-funded PGRs, especially international PGRs, are facing the squeeze during the cost of living crisis alongside paying for extortionate tuition fees and everything else,” he continued.

The UKRI stated in its release regarding the stipend increase that it was responding to direct calls from students, supervisors, research organisers and other mission groups, and that it was the most important priority.

“[Their responses] made it clear that the work on stipends had to be prioritised ahead of other elements of the New Deal for Postgraduate Research,” Melanie Welham, the UKRI’s executive champion for people, culture and talent.

UKRI has called for a new deal to create a positive research culture, ensure doctoral training is attractive, affordable and accessible, and make sure that research is financially sustainable.

“Many self-funded PGRs, especially international PGRs, are facing the squeeze during the cost of living crisis”

One international PhD student, Ruhee Dawood, explained that while she was aware that she would need to look to external funding to support herself, there was “no way of planning for a global pandemic and war” which would then have devastating effects on the cost of living.

“I’m just focusing on what I can control – which has meant making more scholarship applications so that I can get through my PhD.

“Unfortunately, this means less time spent on my research – going into my final year, this is an added stress that I thought I wouldn’t have,” Dawood told The PIE.

While Brexit has meant that more scholarships have been opened up to international PhD students from the EU in the UK, the competition has been getting tougher, with more losing out.

The UCU Postgraduate division has been calling for an overhaul of the stipend situation for some time, and is still unsatisfied with universities’ response to the stipend increase announcement – claiming that no universities have officially confirmed whether they will offer financial support to self-funded PhD students, of which many are internationals.

In addition, only some universities have confirmed they will be increasing their stipend along with UKRI rates.

“Postgraduate researchers should be treated as staff rather than students, which would give them the right to access the cost of living payment, universal credit and workers’ rights,” Aylett commented.

“I also believe there should be non-means-tested hardship funds and a waiver of tuition fees – the latter would make a substantial positive difference towards the financial situation of international PGRs,” he added.

Despite the continued campaigning by the UCU, and only a few confirmations of financial support, UUKi insisted that universities are aware of the issues facing this cohort of students.

“Universities are concerned about the economic pressures facing postgraduate research students,” a spokesperson from UUKi told The PIE.

UUKi also said international students on a UKRI award will in fact benefit from the stipend increase, despite their higher fees, and in general, it is in support of the New Deal for Postgraduate Research.

“[The new deal] is focused specifically on ensuring that doctoral training is an attractive, affordable and accessible option for all PhD students – including those that are self-funded,” they continued.

Welham also said in her update that, despite this current stipend increase, which has partly been prioritised due to the current climates, it would be reviewed in spring in case it possibly has adverse effects on the distribution among students.

“One theme that came through in comments made in response to my open letter was the recognition that enhancing stipends could see fewer students supported overall.

“The UK’s strength as a science superpower is conditional on our ability to attract global talent”

“This, and many other scenarios and questions are being explored in the work we are prioritising to inform the stipend rates for the 2023/24 academic year, which we will communicate in the spring of 2023,” she said.

The stipend increase also indicated that it was the first in a series of reviews of the stipend setup in a more general manner.

“UKRI has committed to reviewing the stipend and how it is set as part of work we are currently progressing on the New Deal for Postgraduate Research. This work is considering the principles by which UKRI funds PGR students, how UKRI determines the amount PGR students will be paid in the future, and how UKRI’s policies interact with the activities of other government departments,” the update went on to say.

However, no mention of international PhD students was made in the update.

“The UK’s strength as a science superpower is conditional on our ability to attract global talent. We need to ensure that we remain an attractive destination for the brightest and best international researchers,” UUKi’s spokesperson added.

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