When Maddy Hoffman started her PhD in Perth in 2019, the stipend was $500 a week. The cheapest place she could find to rent was $300 – more than half her weekly income.
If it weren’t for her partner, she said her PhD in nuclear radiation simply “wouldn’t have happened”.
“When I tell my family what my base hourly rate is and what my work will contribute to Australia … it doesn’t add up. You’ve got people helping synthesise the new wave of antibiotics, drone work for AI, getting paid $15 an hour. It’s a joke.”
As Australia faces a cost of living crisis and rising rents, PhD candidates like Hoffman are increasingly struggling to make ends meet, with stipends for single people falling well below the minimum wage.
Students are urging the government to enact sweeping reforms to their entitlements and increase stipends by at least 15% – and some caution that if they don’t, fewer people will embark on higher education and Australia’s research output could suffer.
Near historical lows
In Australia, every full-time PhD candidate is entitled to apply for a federal government tax-free scholarship. It’s currently sitting at $29,863, although it increases each year with inflation.
It’s just over two-thirds of the national minimum wage of $42,255.20 and, according to Nathan Garland, a lecturer in mathematics and physics at Griffith University who has studied the stipend, it’s among the lowest the stipend has been compared to average full-time earnings since it was introduced in 1959.
Since 2017, universities have been able to top up the stipend to a maximum amount which also rises with inflation – currently the maximum is $46,653.
But an ongoing open source document with data on 189 Australian universities shows 42 offer above the federal government’s stipend – and all fall shy of the minimum wage.
The University of Sydney offers the highest stipend at $37,207, followed by UNSW at $35,000 and ANU at $34,000, according to the Group of Eight, which represents the country’s leading research-intensive universities. ANU lifted its stipend last year, saying cost of living pressures made it “no longer ethical” to stick to the government stipend amount.
Garland said the current average income – about $15.70 an hour – put full-time PhD candidates on about $596.60 a week, below the Melbourne Institute poverty line of $608.96 for a single person if they had to pay for housing.
“Many of them have a partner or children to support and they’re having to eat instant noodles and work extra jobs at night,” Garland said.
“You still need to put a roof over your head.”
Tara-Lyn Camilleri said she wouldn’t have been able to complete her PhD if it weren’t for extensive savings and financial support.
“Through Melbourne’s winter, I know people forced into less than suitable housing who weren’t turning on their heat,” said Camilleri, who lobbied to raise the stipend at Monash University from $30,000 to $37,000 while completing her PhD last year. It was eventually raised to $33,000, about $4,500 less than the minimum wage after tax.
Camilleri said academia’s “best kept secret” was how undervalued PhD students’ research was to the university mill.
“PhD students are the ones putting in the hours in lab, or in the field,” she said. “So many breakthroughs come from all our disciplines but you’re having to convince the government you’re worthwhile.”
And there are other issues with the entitlements, too.
Now four months pregnant, Hoffman has found being a scholarship holder means she is unable to apply for the government’s 18-week paid parental leave scheme. She’s entitled to a maximum of 12 weeks paid maternity leave through her research program and no antenatal care.
“If you want more time, you have to stop studying and get 0% of your scholarship,” she said. “I was shocked. It’s been the most stressful point of the whole pregnancy. Apparently, a PhD does not count as work.”
What’s at stake
Experts worry that the high cost and limited entitlements could put students off embarking on higher education altogether.
Although the number of students completing higher degree research has grown over the past decade, according to Universities Australia figures, that’s been largely driven by a boom in international student enrolments. International student enrolments for higher research skyrocketed by 106% between 2008 and 2020, while domestic enrolments over the same period have grown 6%.
“The appeal [of higher education] has gone down, so to compensate we’re looking to the international market,” Garland said. “A lot of potential candidates who are really talented don’t want to keep living a poor quality of life and I don’t think we can blame them.”
Garland said the weak growth in domestic enrolments could have implications on the quality of research in comparison to other countries like the UK, Germany and Italy, which offer stipends closer to average wages. Universities Australia statistics show Australia’s public investment in tertiary education institutes is among the lowest in the OECD.
The Greens education spokesperson, senator Mehreen Faruqi, said government support for doctoral students was “completely inadequate” and should be lifted.
“With the rising cost of living, many students are barely scraping by,” she said.
“If we want Australian universities to produce the best quality, world-leading research, the government has to provide our researchers with a stipend to support themselves and ease cost of living pressures.”
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations has been lobbying the government to classify PhD students as employees, which would enable greater leave entitlements and a guaranteed minimum wage. They say the minimum stipend should be increased by at least 15 to 20% in 2023 to ensure it remains above the poverty line.
“The work is the same, why aren’t we paid the same?” said Errol Phuah, the association’s national president.
A Department of Education spokesperson said the Universities Accord Panel, announced by the education minister, Jason Clare in November, was “examining every aspect” of higher education in Australia, including funding, to report back later this year.
Any change will likely come too late for Hoffman. Her partner has decided to take parental and long service leave, allowing Hoffman to return to her PhD work after their baby is born.
She’s now determined to make the path easier for candidates after her by advocating for change.
“We’re in this weird grey area where you’re studying, but you’re contributing value to the university system and Australia.
“None of us are here because we’re looking to make money … it’s a program of passion, and a lot of the time, that’s the sacrifice you have to make.”