This guest blog was kindly contributed by Bethan Cornell, a PhD student in Physics at King’s College London. She lives in her own place, with her partner.
A note about terminology: HESA provide data specifically for postgraduate research, excluding postgraduate taught master’s students.
Postgraduate research students are often missed out of debates. While we may have the legal status of ‘student’, in reality we are somewhere between a student and a member of staff.
On the one hand, we are expected to work full-time within a research group and make substantial contributions to publications, which ultimately aid the university’s Research Excellence Framework performance. On the other hand, we have no legal employment status, with no access to workplace pensions, mortgages or income recognised by landlords.
It is this halfway-house position that means PhD students are often forgotten in discussions both about students and staff. William Whyte’s recent HEPI report on the residential student experience is insightful on undergraduates. But I want to provide some reflections as a PhD student.
Where do PhD students fit into the picture? HESA data tell us that of the 2017/2018 PGR student cohort:
- 12% lived in university halls – compared to 19% of undergraduates;
- 4% lived in private halls – compared to 8% of undergraduates;
- 28% lived in their own place – compared to 15% of undergraduates;
- 38% live in ‘other rented’ – compared to 28% of undergraduates; and
- 7% lived with parents – compared to 20% undergraduates.
These figures show that postgraduate researchers (PGRs) live differently to undergraduates: more than two-thirds (70%) live in their own place or in private rented properties. They tend to stay away from their parents to a much larger degree and only 16% live in halls of any kind.
Perhaps this is not surprising as PGRs tend to be older, at a different stage in their lives to undergraduates, and are more likely to be independent, wanting their own space. Indeed, most PhD students are in their mid-to-late twenties, an age when many will be settling down, getting married and even starting families. It is no surprise that, while their peers will be moving up the career ladder, the majority of PGRs want to move on from halls associated with undergraduate life and choose their own place.
This leaves just over 10,000 PGRs who live in halls, so how do they fit into the residential model? The first thing to note is that, if you want to be an academic (and a PhD is the first stage on that pathway), you need to be prepared to move around for work.
William Whyte reminds us that in academia ‘it is those who are most mobile who are most likely to find success’. Given that PhD students are just starting out in their journey of short-term, early career contracts, the residential model is a good thing for them – it means that UK universities are relatively well set up to provide them with good-quality accommodation. A PhD can be a daunting thing and knowing that you don’t have to worry about finding a place to live in a new location can be a comfort – allowing you the space you need to focus on starting your academic career.
Living in an acad-related property could also provide you with a helpful mindset to get you through your postdocs until you find a permanent position. You’ll have that seemingly advantageous ‘job first, location second’ attitude which is so commonplace in the world of research. Logic would, therefore, dictate that PhD students living on campus would be successful in their career and have the attitude it takes to succeed. But is this always the case?
We know from William Whyte’s report that in halls, ‘There tend to be few older “grown-ups” around, save for the security guard’. PhD students are not mixing with other students. At the HEPI / UPP event at the Labour Party Conference on William Whyte’s report, discussion turned both to the ‘cellular’ nature of rooms in some new halls and to the growth in studios – these are often the most expensive type of accommodation and are away from noisy first-year accommodation, so can be more attractive for PhD students who are older and may have more disposable income than their undergraduate colleagues.
Regardless of accommodation, being a PhD student can be an isolating experience – you’re at university out of term time, you work in a small research group and you may be the only one wading through a project. If you’re then coming home to ‘cellular’ accommodation, you will be very isolated, with your home reflecting the nature of your work. William Whyte rightly points out that there is a mental health crisis amongst students and this must be considered in the accommodation debate. He draws the link between lonely halls, with few communal spaces and poor outcomes for students living there, ‘It is easy to see how many students might fall through the cracks of human contact’. This will only be compounded by the solitary way of working that a PhD entails.
So, is the residential model a good thing for PhD students? In my opinion, it could be: it offers the potential and the space to support PhD students on the first step of their future career. Living away from home is something they will have to get used to if they want to be an academic and universities have the structures to help them prepare for this. Moving away from home could, indeed, be seen as part of their PhD training, preparing them for academic life and since they are students, therefore, should be considered as a component of their research degree by universities. Universities could really encourage and support this aspect of learning by embracing PhD students into the residential model, helping them in their career to move away from home. It makes sense that this ought to be a strongly supported part of their training.
Currently, some accommodation choices available for PhD students may be detrimental to their experiences and have the potential to leave them more isolated and left out of the university community than they already are as a result of their troubled ‘halfway-house’ status.
In part, at least, this leads back to the initial question: are we staff or are we students? Should we have access to the type of income stability provided by employment that would allow us to access the good quality accommodation that the vast majority of PhD students are striving for? Or are we students who are learning the art of being a fixed-term contract academic, requiring support from our university to face all the challenges of moving about?
At the moment, we are neither. The challenge now is to find and define the identity of the PhD student so that in papers like William Whyte’s, we can be coherently considered.