UK graduate students demand pay rise from nation's largest research funder –

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The current UK rate of inflation exceeds 9%.Credit: Getty
An open letter to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the country’s largest public funder of research, is calling for immediate increases in stipends for postgraduate researchers, to keep pace with inflation.
As this story went to press, the letter had been signed by more than 8,000 postgraduate researchers from across the United Kingdom as well as more than 3,600 supporters, including current faculty members. “It’s great to see so many students rallying around this issue,” says Ansh Bhatnagar, a first-year PhD student in physics at Durham University who helped to draft the letter. “I was thinking if we could get 1,000 PhD students to back us, that would be really good.”
The letter, posted online on 27 June, is part of a growing chorus of calls for increased funding for PhD and master’s degree students in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In May, more than 300 postgraduate researchers in London signed a letter asking for increased support from the Medical Research Council (MRC), one of nine funding councils under the UKRI umbrella. “A lot of students across the UK are quite concerned,” says Emma Francis, a second-year PhD student in psychiatry at University College London (UCL), who co-wrote the May letter. “Many are in a dire situation right now.”
Tony Padilla, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, signed the open letter to the UKRI in support of PhD students. “The cost-of-living crisis is affecting everyone, but it hits hardest on those on the lowest incomes, and that includes PhD workers, as we should really call them,” he says. “How can a PhD worker focus on an important research problem if they are worrying where their next meal will come from?”
The UKRI had previously announced a plan to increase the current minimum PhD stipend of £15,609 (US$18,700) by 2.9% for the 2022–23 academic year. That’s less than one-third of the current annual rate of inflation in the United Kingdom, which exceeds 9%.
The annual growth in the Retail Price Index (RPI), a measure of the cost of retail goods, is approaching 12%.
In their open letter, Bhatnagar and his co-authors estimate that their demands would cost the UKRI an extra £44 million in the coming year. That would be approximately enough to raise stipends by 12% from the 2021–22 level for the 30,000 or so students currently supported by the UKRI. The letter also notes that, according to a 2022–23 budget report released on 30 May, the funder anticipates roughly £400 million in “non-committed spend”, the proportion of the budget that has not yet been allocated to existing, pending or announced funding programmes. “I’m sure they have a lot of competing requests for that money,” says Bhatnagar, but using 10% of the non-committed spend for “the future of research should be a key priority for them”.
In a 6 July statement to Nature, the UKRI said, “We recognize the rising cost of living is affecting postgraduate researchers. As such, we are actively talking to other bodies across the sector about whether we could provide further support. We will communicate any decision that results from these discussions as soon as possible.”
The statement added that the UKRI’s budget is fully allocated until 2024–25 to “core council programmes, infrastructure or collective talent funding, for example”, and that “any adjustment to an allocation would impact on other planned allocation areas”.
On 14 June, the funding body had announced that it was “considering financial support for research students” and was “talking to sector groups on a range of options”. But this did little to ease concerns among students, Bhatnagar says. “Our worry was that if we weren’t clear about what we wanted, they would opt for ad hoc solutions,” he says. Specifically, he and others are concerned that the UKRI might avoid across-the-board pay increases and instead give rises only to students who meet certain financial criteria, an approach known as means testing.
Hannah Franklin, a second-year PhD student in neuroscience at UCL who co-wrote the letter to the MRC, says that wide disparities in student pay motivated her to speak out. She works within the Francis Crick Institute in London, an organization with a separate PhD programme, and she is funded by the MRC. She notes that in April, students in the programme successfully campaigned for their annual stipends to rise from £22,000 to £25,000. “This is a great example of progress being made and PhD students receiving the recognition and financial support they need and deserve,” she says. “But we have PhD students under the same roof making £17,000. It isn’t fair.”
Franklin and Francis reached out to the UCL administration before contacting the MRC. The university “was very supportive of us and behind us every step of the way”, Franklin says.
The financial situation is especially bleak for students living and working in London, she adds. Most benefit from ‘London weighting’ that increases their stipends above the UKRI minimum to account for the capital’s high cost of living, but even so, MRC students in London currently receive an annual stipend of only £18,062. By comparison, the average salary for a barista at a London Starbucks is more than £21,500, according to the job website Indeed. MRC students don’t have to pay income tax or local council taxes, but the stipend is still not enough to keep up with costs, Franklin says: “Utility bills in London are through the roof.” Rents and transport costs are also soaring. According to the mayor’s office, the current living wage for London residents is £11.05 per hour, which translates to almost £23,000 per year for a person working 40 hours a week.
Franklin makes ends meet by taking babysitting jobs over the weekend. And for the past seven months, she has been living with her parents. “I’m 27 years old,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to do that.” Francis takes on extra research jobs to meet costs. “Often I finish the end of my working day and then I start my next job and work until 10 or 11 at night,” she says. “I can’t do as many PhD hours as I want to because I have to worry about paying the bills next month.”
The meagre support for PhD students in the UK has consequences. “There’s a huge pool of people who simply cannot apply for a PhD because it’s not feasible,” Franklin says. “Some of us have part-time jobs, some of us are supported by family, but some of us can’t do it at all.”
Bhatnagar has received dozens of testimonials from PhD students since the UKRI letter was released. “People are dropping out or are about to drop out,” he says. “There’s too much stress.”
Correction 13 July 2022: PhD student Hannah Franklin works within the Francis Crick Institute in London and is funded by the Medical Research Council. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that she is funded by the Crick and did not say that she works there.
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