One of England’s most prestigious universities has been forced to increase the pay of some of its PhD students after it was found to have paid them an annual sum that effectively meant they were getting below the national minimum wage.
Durham University’s trade union branch said it was shocked to discover last September that PhD students teaching on the institution’s popular law course were being paid £15,000 a year. The University and College Union (UCU) said that this would make them among the lowest paid in the sector.
This annual amount covered the students while they undertook 1,880 hours of research for their PhD, and obliged them to provide 80 hours of teaching on the degree course. Although the university says research pursued as part of a PhD is unpaid, and that this is standard in higher education, it meant students were effectively receiving £7.98 an hour before tax for their combined efforts in research and teaching. This is below the national minimum wage of £9.50 for people aged 23 and over.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body that funds research on behalf of the UK government, states the annual amount paid to students for carrying out research should be £17,668 and that it should not include any compulsory teaching.
The union said the university’s announcement this week that it will increase funding for law PhD students by £5,000 a year, following lobbying from the local Labour MP and academics, was a “huge win”.
“It is absolutely shameful that a university as wealthy as Durham thought it was acceptable to pay PhD researchers less than the legal minimum wage,” said Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU. “Law PhD students told us they were taking on many jobs to get by and really struggling to manage everything.
Durham University has rejected the suggestion that it pays its postgraduate students below the minimum wage. It told the Observer that the £15,000 should not be calculated as though it was for combined research and teaching hours. “Postgraduate students are not paid for research which forms part of their studies,” said a spokesperson, adding that the sum included a living stipend and teaching of up to 80 hours, with teaching above that level remunerated separately.
More than 70,000 staff at 150 universities across the UK will strike for 18 days between February and March in disputes over pay, conditions and pensions. Among them are many young postgraduates who the UCU says are typically teaching undergraduate seminars and marking degree work on zero-hours or casualised contracts and struggling to manage on their low earnings.
Mary Kelly Foy, Labour MP for Durham, met the university’s vice-chancellor, Karen O’Brien, before Christmas to urge her to raise the pay for law postgraduates. She told the Observer: “I’m glad that in this case the university has taken steps to remunerate all teaching in line with its [standard] pay rates, which are well above minimum wage.”
But she warned that universities across the sector needed to do more to improve job security, pay and conditions.
A science PhD student at Durham, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of harming his job prospects, said he was paid £14 an hour on a zero-hours contract for teaching undergraduate workshops, but sometimes the amount of unpaid preparation needed meant their real hourly rate was only half this. “It is really worrying, and I know a lot of people who are seriously struggling,” he said.
“I think parents assume everything is done by well-paid professors,” he added. “They don’t understand the amount of teaching and marking PhD students do on precarious contracts.”
Aerin Lai, who is researching a sociology PhD at the University of Edinburgh, said: “I have PhD friends who are basically surviving on bread because they can’t afford much else.”
Lai earns around £700 a month from teaching, because the university limits the number of hours PhD students should take on alongside their research. She does a second administrative job at the university to pay bills and tide her over in the holidays, when she has no teaching income, but still “constantly” worries about paying her rent.
A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said the university no longer employs anyone on zero-hours contracts but research students are often on “guaranteed minimum hours contracts” with the same terms and conditions as salaried staff.
She added: “We have committed to supporting our students with the rise in the cost of living in a range of ways. As well as on-campus facilities and reduced catering costs, we have more than doubled the available funds for students who are experiencing financial difficulties to over £3m.”
Dr Stephen Hewer, a medieval history specialist at the University of Liverpool, said he has decided to give up on British academia when his three-year post comes to an end in a year’s time. Despite having a prestigious Leverhulme fellowship, Hewer is on his third fixed-term contract since finishing his PhD in 2018 and has no idea what his future holds.
He said: “With massive inflation, no increase in pay and the cut to our pension, it doesn’t seem worth applying in the UK.”
Hewer is learning Dutch in the hope of moving to the Netherlands. “They have better job security and their pay keeps up with the cost of living.”
A spokesperson for Durham said the university agreed last September to increase all postgraduate stipends to £17,668, as recommended by the UKRI, and “these arrangements are now in place”.
But he added: “Where anomalies were raised regarding Durham Law School, they have been resolved, and the stipend increase backdated to the start of the 2022/23 academic year. In addition, any student who tutors in the law school will be paid at the agreed rate.”
• This article was amended on 3 February 2023 to add a further response from Durham regarding the £15,000 payment, including the university’s rejection of the suggestion that this had effectively equated to “less than minimum wage”. Its explanation that a postgraduate stipend does not remunerate research has also been reflected in the amendment.