When Dollars Diminish Dreams: The Undeniable Impact of Cost of Living on PhD Students 

By Aaron Bui – QUT Student Guild Post Grad Officer  

Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students have been immensely impacted by the cost-of-living crisis. As recipients of scholarships that continue to be below minimum wage while working full-time, how could they not be? 

Last year, it was encouraging to see that the University increased HDR scholarships to $30,000 per year. And it was even greater when the grants were finally raised to $32,500, bringing QUT’s scholarship funding closer to that of other universities. However, the latest increase left a lot of HDR students baffled and disappointed as not all scholarships were increased, and now there are two sets of scholarships – valued at $30,000 and $32,500. 

You might be asking yourself, what’s the difference between the two sets of scholarships? Simply put, the $32,500 stipends are funded centrally by QUT, and the $30,000 stipends are non-centrally funded scholarships, which means the funds come from the faculty, school, or the supervisor. There is no difference in terms of the work required from students. 

HDR students are paid for 72.5 hours per fortnight, or 36.25 hours per week. However, the scholarship conditions clearly state that “QUT expects full-time HDR candidates will spend a minimum of 40 hours per week on their studies”. Many HDR students simply cannot live off a $30,000 per annum scholarship and have to take on extra jobs like tutoring. However, there are not enough tutoring jobs for everyone. 

The $30,000 scholarship is particularly frustrating considering the current cost-of-living crisis. Inflation of almost 8% has left PhD students with less money in their pockets, as almost every aspect of everyone’s lives has gotten more expensive. Even a seemingly trivial thing, like traveling to campus, is expensive for students. Assuming you come to campus five days a week and you travel during peak times (like most full-time workers), catching public transport can cost more than $80 per month. Many HDR students cannot work from home and are required to access on-site research facilities. If a HDR student is only paid $1,150 per fortnight and this money must cover food, rent, and all the other everyday costs to survive, $80 a month is a significant amount of money.  

And don’t get me started on rent! Landlords have raised prices, there is less and less housing available, and the rental market is just horrible. It’s particularly problematic for international students, who have almost no rental record or even a guarantor. 

According to the Graduate Research Centre, around 40% of the HDR cohort are international students, which is significantly higher than the proportion of international students within the general student population at QUT (according to QUT Annual Report 2022). International students are disproportionately affected by this cost-of-living crisis as they don’t have the same support systems in Australia to fall back to as most domestic students, like nearby family or access to government welfare services. 

It’s evident that the scholarship amount is off-putting to those who are considering starting a PhD. As explained by a member of the University Academic Board, even the higher valued Indigenous scholarships worth $45,000 are rejected by students because they are seen as insufficient. This leaves a PhD reserved for those in higher income brackets, with families who can afford to support them. However, doesn’t QUT pride itself on having a comparatively high proportion of students who are the first in their families to receive tertiary education and/or a higher research degree? Data shows almost 30% of QUT students are first-generation university attendees. 

It’s simply unfair that the majority of HDR students at QUT receive $200 more per month, while others have been left behind. This underpayment has made it significantly more difficult for those on the lower value scholarships to sustain themselves in this current climate. For this reason, many HDR students feel abandoned and unappreciated by the University. They can’t understand why they would be paid less for the same work, particularly as HDR students are the very backbone of every university’s research portfolio.  

For a university that promotes values like equality and inclusiveness, this is unacceptable. 

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