FMHS PGSA has expressed concerns about the currently offered UoA Doctoral Scholarship PhD stipend amount, as it is below minimum wage. Board Member Joseph Chen argues we shouldn’t normalise PhD students being underpaid and undervalued.
The Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences Post Graduate Student Association (FMHS PGSA) launched a petition in July, arguing that the University of Auckland’s Doctoral Scholarship stipend amount should be increased to the minimum wage. The petition garnered 733 signatures from 456 doctoral students, 190 staff, 69 pre-doctoral students, 13 alumni, and five external signatories.
FMHS PGSA says that PhD students are currently earning well below the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. “This wage disparity between the minimum wage and the PhD stipend has been growing larger and at an accelerated pace since 2016.” The scholarship available to high achieving doctoral students currently pays a stipend of $28,500 per annum. According to the association, this remuneration equates to $13.70 per hour take-home pay, assuming a 40-hour work week, with 52 weeks in a year.
In their open letter, the student association states that the current stipend fee presents serious financial, ethical, and health concerns for PhD students. They argue that rising living costs in Auckland force students to pursue additional work, pushing PhD students to work 50 hours a week. “These financial and time pressures contribute to problems of stress, mental health problems, and burnout.” FMHS PGSA Board Member, Joseph Chen, says that the stipend also doesn’t adequately reflect the worth of PhD students. The association’s letter cited that Summer Research Scholars, who are typically undergraduate students with no research experience, are afforded a higher hourly wage than PhD students.
In response to these concerns, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, James Metson, stated that the scholarships strategy is under review by the Universities Research Committee. However, in an email to the association, Metson noted that increasing the stipend wouldn’t be their priority. The University also does not accept that the argument scholarships pay below minimum wage. “The University of Auckland PhD stipend is already the highest in the country, as is appropriate given living costs in Auckland”.
In the email, Metson stated that the University has a difficult balance between the value of the scholarship and the number we can offer. “This is an important equity issue as it dictates the number of students who can benefit from pursuing a PhD.” Metson did say that the University would consider how they can recognise the financial pressures of PhD students and their role in meeting the Universities research objectives. Joseph Chen told Craccum that this response was incredibly disappointing.” As James Mensen pointed out, the cost of living has increased much faster than stipend wages.” He says that while UoA does pay the highest stipend amount of all New Zealand universities, it still isn’t enough for PhD students. “I know too many PhD students that are struggling to get by. Just reaching minimum wage would be a lifesaver for many students who are barely making ends meet.”
The student association also requested for national funding agencies to raise their stipend to the minimum wage. As well as the University, the student association contacted six other entities, including the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) and the Royal Society Te Apārangi (RSTA). The letter argues universities set a standard for other funding agencies to value PhD students below minimum wage, listing the Marsden Grants current stipend at $27,500 per annum as an example. “We believe by asking the national agencies to match minimum wage, and hopefully along with other Universities, this will provide the future groundwork to argue for the more tenable living wage.”
RSTA, who administer the Marsden Grants, has told the association that they will review their scholarships, with the outcomes of this review being announced later this year. HRC has stated they support raising their funded stipends and are opening a review into the current stipend level. “We respect that HRC actually bothered to recognise this as a problem, and say they are going to do something about it”, says Chen. The Ministry of Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Ministry Foreign Affairs and Trade, Education Minister Chris Hipkins, and Minister of Research Science and Innovation, Dr Megan Woods, were also contacted about the issue but stated that it was not their direct responsibility.
The recent announcement that $7 million in bonuses will be paid to UoA staff has also led many to question why there is not more student support funding. Chen says that PhD students have continuously been neglected. “PhD students are often considered honorary staff but don’t get the same amount of privileges like a raise. It makes it appear that the University does not care about its PhD students.” Going forward, FMHS PGSA says they will monitor UoA’s internal scholarships strategy review and continue to give input. Chen thinks we should not be normalising PhD students being underpaid and undervalued and says a stipend that reflects at least the minimum wage is the first step to addressing these inequities.