Financial difficulties affect researchers at all career stages

PhD researchers around the world are protesting against low stipends that see them earning barely enough to live on. But they’re not the only people in academia demanding more financial support.

Rapid inflation has left undergraduate students struggling to get by on grants and student loans, compounding financial difficulties that some were already experiencing after losing part-time jobs in hospitality and retail during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Ireland, thousands of students walked out of lectures and classes on 13 October last year to demand the abolition of the €2000 (£1760) annual student contribution charge (paid by all undergraduates who qualify for ‘free fees’ status), better protection for renters and grants that match the cost of living.

Some universities have attempted to recoup inflation-driven cost increases from undergraduates. In the last few weeks, students at several universities in Sudan have held strikes to protest against increases that leave tuition fees nearly nine times higher than before; similar protests occurred in Nigeria after fees at many of the country’s universities doubled or tripled. In Lesotho, a decision to cut monthly stipends from M1050 (£48) to M500 led to a protest on 16 June last year, during which two people – at least one a National University of Lesotho student – died after being shot by police.

Among university employees, a strike by academic researchers at the University of California system and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US that lasted for 40 days resulted in pay increases, although possible cuts to PhD enrolment numbers may mean the issue is not settled yet. In the UK, members of the University and College Union (UCU), who include employees in further and higher education organisations, held a series of strikes throughout February; further strikes are planned for March. UCU is not only asking for better pay deals for members, but to reverse cuts made to pension packages last year.

Researchers aren’t only concerned about their income, but also wider budget cuts that are affecting their ability to teach and research. In January, academics protested in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Tunis after a 20% reduction in the budget for higher education and research for 2023. Across Venezuela, teachers and professors reportedly held 400 protest marches over nine days. Many have second jobs to make ends meet; severe government budget cuts that have got steadily harsher over two decades mean that university infrastructure is crumbling.

These are just snapshots of a few of the actions that have happened – similar stories are playing out in other countries too. With the global financial outlook continuing to look gloomy, resolutions are unlikely to come soon.