Chinese PhD students on low state allowances ‘like beggars’

Experts agree with vice-chancellor that financial support for doctoral candidates should be increased

December 3, 2022
CHENGDU, CHINA - MAY 8, 2016 Chinese homeless looks for food and valuable in a garbage tin on May 8 2016 in Chengdu, China
Source: iStock

PhD students in some parts of China have to live “like a beggar” because of the low state allowances they receive, a vice-chancellor has warned.

Comments made at the Seventh Fudan Chief Economists Forum by Liu Yuanchun, a renowned economist and the vice-chancellor of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, went viral online recently.

“There are 400,000 doctoral students in China working like beggars with a monthly income of just ¥3,000 [£347],” he said. “In places like Shanghai and Beijing, [living on] ¥3,000 is like [being] a beggar, so I asked whether…we can increase their income to ¥10,000 per month.”

The economists’ forum, held by Fudan University, is an annual event at which leading economists and strategists share their views on the outlook for China.

Professor Liu estimated that his proposal would cost ¥40 billion nationally, which is “nothing in our stimulus plan” but “helps to nurture these doctoral students to become top talents, allowing them to focus on doing research and pay their bills”.

Peng Pai, an associate professor in the School of Education at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, agreed that it was “necessary to raise the allowance standards for doctoral students”.

“Especially those who support their supervisors to complete research projects – they have passed the qualification exam and finished courses – [they] deserve reasonable payment for their labour,” he told Times Higher Education.

National standards increased the annual allowance for PhD students at “central” institutions from ¥12,000 to ¥15,000 when they were published in 2017. For students at “regional” institutions, the allowance is ¥13,000.

Li Kelang, head of the Centre of Postgraduate Education and Development at Shenzhen University, said that as far as he knew, PhD students “in relatively developed areas” in China’s south and east got about ¥3,000 a month, “whereas students in the north-west receive even less than that”.

According to official data released by the Municipal Statistics Bureau of Shanghai, the disposable income per capita of its residents in 2021 was ¥78,027 and consumer expenditure per capita was ¥48,879. In Shenzhen, these figures are ¥70,847 and ¥46,286, respectively.

But Mr Li explained that the income of doctoral students typically consists of three parts: the state allowance, which is the basic allowance; payments for supporting supervisors with research projects; and competitive scholarships, which vary between departments and institutions.

“At Shenzhen University, excellent doctoral students, which are a small proportion of the whole cohort, could get at least ¥100,000 per year,” he added.

At Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), which is regarded as being particularly generous, doctoral students enjoy an annual allowance of ¥100,000, and some can top this up to ¥250,000 via research groups and publication rewards.

One SUSTech employee, who asked not to be named, confirmed these figures but added that the way of calculation “is not simply offering the same package to every student”, because students with better performance and more responsibilities, such as teaching assistants, will be paid more.

Huazhong’s Dr Peng said it was “understandable different regions make their thresholds, depending on local living standards”.

“But more importantly, it should be decided by the actual amount of work that the students complete. Those who contribute more should get higher payment,” he said.

Mr Li emphasised the role of supervisors. “On the one hand, we should increase national and institutional investment, but on the other hand, we need to address supervisors’ responsibility,” he said.

“Whether they have funding from research projects and are willing to pay more to participating students makes a huge difference, so here I call for supervisors to raise the payment standards.”

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