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USyd alumni launches class action for PhD wages

PhD stipends are generally well below the minimum wage, and students are being exploited for their research output.

University of Sydney Classics PhD graduate Tristan Burt has launched a class action against the Commonwealth, arguing that PhD students should be classified as employees rather than students.

Presently, PhD students on the Commonwealth Research Training Program (RTP) scholarships receive stipends, with most universities awarding the minimum amount of approximately $29,000 per annum. 

However, according to the Commonwealth Scholarship Guidelines, students on the RTP scheme are required to spend a minimum two-thirds of their time performing research work. Burt argues that PhD students are essentially being paid below minimum wage to perform research work which counts towards Australia’s Research & Development statistical reporting to the OECD.

Burt told Honi that the Commonwealth’s scholarship guidelines were “structured as employment relationships” but have kept the scholarships “bundled up in the notion of a stipend or scholarship to try and suggest that it is somehow not falling within the umbrella of employment.” As a result, PhD students can be paid below the minimum wage through the stipend system despite working as researchers. 

In a statement of claim issued to the Fair Work Division of the Federal Court, Burt and the members of his class action will argue that “it is axiomatic that this supervised research work…could not be undertaken by trainee researchers but rather only by highly trained researchers capable therefore of performing ‘research work’” and that “the supervised research work…did not comprise ‘education and training.’”

There is some precedent for the view that PhD students should be classified as employees. In the 1982 case of Rowe v Capital Territory Health Commission, the Federal Court found that — in the context of student nurses — the granting of a government scholarship was not incompatible with classification as an employee.

As far back as the 1970s, concerns were raised in parliament over the adequacy of support payment to postgraduate research students. Since that time, the stipend level has stagnated to the point that it is now approximately two-thirds of the minimum wage. The low stipend has implications for the accessibility of research degrees, limiting their availability to those with financial and family circumstances that allow them to earn below minimum wage for a number of years. 

In many European countries, PhD students are classified as employees of their institution and are remunerated accordingly. 

In recent years, the University of Sydney has increased its stipend rate to a level close to the minimum wage. However, the vast majority of universities continue to award the minimum allowable rate. 

Burt told Honi that the government is “holding the purse strings and that the pressure that is then put upon the universities leads to all of these practices. That is why the case has been taken against the Commonwealth.”

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