Are PhD Students being paid below the minimum wage?


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.

Burt takes aim as the Commonwealth Research Training Program (RTP) which provides RTP scholarships to doctorate students for stipends, among other things, to assist students with the living costs whilst undertaking research.

The Commonwealth Scholarships Guidelines (Research) 2017 provides the legislative basis for the provision of funding to this program and prescribes the conditions that apply to RTP grant amounts. For 2021, the RTP Stipend rate is $28,597 per annum and the maximum full-time RTP Stipend rate is $44,674 per annu,. The Guidelines further specify that students on a RTP must spend ‘at least two thirds’ (on average 38.5 hours per week) of their time dedicated to research work.  The practical effect of the RTP means doctorate students are forced to live off very little income, rely on support from family and friends, or undertake secondary employment in addition to the full time study load in order to get by.

Burt seeks to argue that ‘research work’ is distinct from ‘education and training’ such that it’s elevens to a classification of an employee. Accordingly, the quantity of works required by the Guidelines, would mean that RTP researchers are paid below the minimum wage of $21.38 per hour. The matter is still before the Federal Court, a hearing date is yet to be set.

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