Should NZ's PhD researchers be working at below minimum wage?

Should NZ's PhD researchers be working at below minimum wage?

They’re the workhorses and future of New Zealand’s research system – yet university PhD scholars are continuing to struggle on pay that’s well short of even minimum wage.

Now there are fears that if conditions don’t change soon, more of our brightest young minds will choose to study and work overseas – while those disadvantaged might never afford to become researchers at all.

In New Zealand and elsewhere, university graduate scholars have long received fixed annual sums – or stipends – to help support themselves as they study.

While stipends have traditionally been low, scholars have been increasingly arguing they’ve fallen far behind the cost of living here.

“All of us know that graduate scholarship levels can be a barrier to study, and conversations with colleagues showed us that senior academics were often not aware of how low they had fallen compared to living costs and the minimum wage,” said Dr Lucy Stewart, a senior scientist at Toha NZ.

“We wanted to put on the record how they had stalled over the last two decades, and discuss the implications of that for students and as a barrier to entry into research.”

In a paper released this morning, she and colleagues Max Soar and Drs Sylvia Nissen, Sereana Naepi and Tara McAllister calculated the average PhD, masters and summer scholarship values across all New Zealand universities over the last 20 years, along with the maximum and minimum value.

They then compared this to the value of the minimum wage, and also looked at the median length of time it was taking students in different fields to complete their degrees, given scholarships are usually offered for three years for a PhD.

“We wanted to assess whether [the scholarships] were supporting people to complete their whole degree, or even most people.”

They quickly found they weren’t.

While scholarship values rose from 2000 to 2008, they stayed stagnant from 2011 through to 2019.

“Obviously, living costs over this period rose significantly, and so did the minimum wage,” Stewart said.

In 2019, the average PhD scholarship was valued at just $25,424 – less than the minimum wage at the time ($30,841) and more than $11,000 below the living wage ($36,662).

“In addition, we found that the median student now takes four years to complete a PhD – so there’s a whole year where people are not getting any support at all even on a ‘full’ scholarship, but they have to keep going to finish the degree.

“The reasons for this can be complex but obviously not supporting people is not keeping degrees shorter, it’s just keeping PhD students even poorer.”

Further, they found the average value of summer scholarships didn’t budge at all over the entire period.

“They have gone from being a really great opportunity for students to engage in research over their summer break – often the first step towards a PhD – while earning enough to save for the following year, to barely paying enough to support students over the summer,” Stewart said.

“How can a student with children, or from a family that needs their help, justify that?”

One PhD candidate, Joseph Chen, said it was common for graduate scholars to work 40 or more hours a week on their project.

The 26-year-old, based at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, has been neuroimaging the biological mechanisms in the brain that exhibits depression – something one in seven Kiwis experience in their lifetimes.

Should NZ's PhD researchers be working at below minimum wage?

University of Auckland PhD candidate Joseph Chen says it's common for graduate scholars to work 40 or more hours a week on their projects. Photo / Supplied

“There are a lot of great resources and awareness out there – but we need to find better treatments for depression, which means we need to better understand it.”

He receives a university stipend of around $28,500 a year.

On top of these stipends, he said researchers are allowed to work 500 hours a year – or roughly 10 hours a week – to help make ends meet.

Fortunately, Chen’s been able to find casual work as an assistant teacher at the university, although, between semesters and through lockdowns, it didn’t provide a stable source of income.

“I guess part of what keeps me going is that I personally, for my research area, I just think more needs to be done for depression,” he said.

“I was raised in Auckland and I’ve gained so much from this beautiful country, so I’d love to give back and stay in New Zealand to do this.”

Stewart and her colleagues felt that scholarships supporting students like Chen to train as researchers should be offered at the current living wage – and for the actual length of time it took to complete a PhD.

Further, they argued postgraduate student allowance should be reinstated for people who are not being supported on a scholarship.

Currently, they said the cost-sharing approach to postgraduate research, where universities provided financial support while scholars provided “sweat equity”, remained skewed in favour of universities, “who have kept their financial contribution low relative to inflation and cost of living such that it is now incommensurate with the skilled labour of researchers”.

In many European countries PhD-level researchers are considered employees – thus getting associated benefits like maternity leave – and become eligible for higher wages as they go through the PhD and gain experience.”

In the US, PhD stipends from Nasa were for around NZ$42,000 for 10 months, while National Science Foundation fellowships came with a rate of around NZ$48,000.

Closer to home, Australian fellowships are more similar to New Zealand levels, at around AU$29,000 (NZD$30,000).

Stewart feared that, if the status quo stayed in place, many of New Zealand’s best and brightest would never become researchers, simply because they couldn’t afford to.

“This applies particularly for Māori and Pacific scholars, who are already disadvantaged in the academy.

“In addition, our research system will continue to rely in large part on young researchers who are overworked, stressed, and living in poverty.”

In a statement to the Herald, Universities New Zealand-Te Pōkai Tara chief executive Chris Whelan said students’ ability to support themselves financially should not determine who can and cannot study for a postgraduate qualification.

“That is why Universities New Zealand-Te Pōkai Tara opposed the 2013 removal of government allowances for postgraduate students and in the ensuing years has regularly advocated for them to reinstated,” he said.

“This includes, at the end of 2019, writing to the Minister of Education adding Vice-Chancellors’ support to a New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations call for their reinstatement.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has been approached for comment.

Whelan clarified the stipend element of a scholarship was intended as a contribution to living expenses, not a wage, and each university calculated its stipends according to its particular circumstances.

Vice-chancellors would read the new analysis and its suggestions with interest, he added.

New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) co-president Professor Troy Baisden said the scale of the problem had “come as a shock” to him and other senior researchers.

“We’ve been led to assume doctoral students are being trained for stable, well-paid jobs,” he said.

“Yet our research sector tends to hire well-trained graduates from overseas, while our doctorates have been going overseas for more training – until the pandemic shut down most of these options.”

With international mobility now very difficult, he said the NZAS saw fixing the science career pipeline as a top priority.

“We have to ask what we’re doing to help smart young kiwis choose the careers in research that will lift the nation’s future prosperity and wellbeing,” he said.

“We have to ask about making opportunities available to everyone, and about training beyond three years so people are truly workforce ready.

“More evidence is needed on all these points to manage change. But Dr Megan Woods, as the Minister of Research Science and Innovation, has rightly concluded that there’s enough evidence to justify major changes to the research system.”

“We now need to consider how that can percolate through universities, to make the process of doing a PhD more fairly paid and better matched to the needs of New Zealand.”

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