A PhD in poverty

Australia’s young research elite is paid starvation wages, with Commonwealth stipends for PHD and research masters students set at a base $32,000 this year, more than $10,000 under the official minimum wage.

They are funded under the government’s research training program, with money per PG place allocated to their university according to a formula based on research income and degree completions. While the stipend ceiling is $52,000, no institution pays that across all recipients and the average is $34,000, as the Australian Council of Graduate Research discovered when it surveyed the 42 institutions in the funding scheme.

Some of the nine paying the base rates are small and not well especially well-resourced, such as University of Notre Dame and Charles Darwin U but so do others with strong research reputations in areas of strength, such as Uni of Newcastle. And two Group of Eight members, Uni Adelaide ($34,210) and Uni Queensland ($33,640) pay below average.

Given Brisbane’s median rent for a one-bedroom flat is around $2,000 a month, it is hard to see how PhD students get much research done, what with the debilitating effects of malnutrition. Even at the top end, UTS, Melbourne, UNSW and Uni Sydney pay between $37,000 – $40,000.

Certainly some universities kick in a bit more. Indigenous candidates receive 24.7% more than non-Indigenous candidates on average, with Griffith University leading the pack, offering Indigenous HDR students more than $50,000 pa.

Overall, however, pay rates are not sufficient to create a sustainable base to renew the research workforce over time.

As Catriona Jackson, then from Universities Australia, warned last year, the number of PhD graduates fell from 9,500 in 2019 to 8,500 in ’21. As ACGRs’ Professor Clive Baldock puts it; “a shortfall in highly trained PhD graduate researchers would potentially hinder innovation, economic growth, and our ability to tackle global challenges through advanced research and development. 

“Increased funding is essential not only to attract high quality PhD candidates but also to ensure that candidates can focus on undertaking their research studies without the increased financial burden during the current cost of living crisis,” Professor Baldock says.

“There is a heightened risk that Australia will not be positioned to produce the future PhD graduates so crucial for our nation’s research workforce.“



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