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Cambridge student launches sick pay campaign

Claudia Pama lost her PhD funding when diagnosed with cancer

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A campaign has been launched by Claudia Pama, PhD student at John's, to guarantee postgraduates the right to sick leave.

This comes after her own experience of the problems faced by PhD students who become ill. Her funding was taken away by both of her funding bodies, who she has kept anonymous, following a cancer diagnosis. She had 'no choice' but to delay her research whilst she was getting treatment setting her back 10 weeks. To make matters worse, she realised there was no sick pay policy.

She told Times Higher Education how "It was an impossible situation at first. Without this funding- my main source of income- I would certainly have had to drop out of the project altogether."

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Pama's own experiences inspired her to start her campaign.

Negotiations were made whilst she was in the middle of treatment, so that she would continue to receive the funding for the moment, but would not get the funding for the prior 10 weeks. Yet at the point she was in no position to do much about it, since she was still receiving medical treatment.

Further inspiration for starting the campaign came when Pama learned that her friend pursuing a PhD in Oxford faced the same problems after a cancer diagnosis and learning about another case in UCL.

The three students set up a petition and published a letter in Nature detailing their experiences. In it they highlighted that "cutting a student's stipend because of serious illness is standard practice in the United Kingdom, compounding the combined stresses of delays to the research project and of the condition itself".

They pointed out that "Training grants from the UK research councils typically allow 13 weeks of paid sick leave; the studentship is suspended if an illness is expected to last longer" and that other "funders may not cover sick leave at all, and most universities do not step in to help". This leads to ill students being "forced to continue working, to rely on contributions from friends and relatives, or to quit their PhD – all unacceptable punishments in our view".

The students in their petition propose that training contracts should be more similar to the contracts academic staff receive that allow for at least 6 months of paid sick leave.

The petition has been signed by over 400 academics and Cancer Research U.K have pledged their support. They've agreed to adopt their own policy of four months of fully paid sick leave and a further four month period of half-pay if necessary.

Pama praised Cambridge calling them "very supportive" of her "situation" but highlighted that despite this she is "still looking for financial cover for the final part of my PhD".