This article is more than 4 years old

Covid-19: Won’t somebody think of the postgraduate research students?

This article is more than 4 years old

Alessandro Ceccarelli is the President of the Cambridge University Graduate Union. 

Stella Swain is the Welfare and Rights Officer at the Cambridge University Graduate Union and the Cambridge University Students’ Union. 

Funding for all postgraduate students needs to be guaranteed during the COVID pandemic, and already over 1,300 research students agree.

Postgraduate students are facing major disruption due to the pandemic, with almost all laboratories and libraries closed, and many researchers unable to continue work.

Now in an open letter to the major UK funding bodies, a group of research students urges funding bodies to guarantee financial support for all postgraduate students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are more than 20,000 students funded by UKRI and affiliated bodies, but they have yet not received any clarity from their funders on whether they will continue to receive the stipends they live on during periods when research cannot continue, or if progress on research is slowed.

And given the influence of UKRI and the seven Research Councils in the UK, many other funding bodies are holding back on their decisions concerning financial support for extensions and for break from studies and research.

Financial implications

The letter was launched as a response to the need of postgraduate students in the UK. We’ve been hearing a huge number of concerns from the postgraduate students we represent in Cambridge and from beyond, with many people worried and no clarity on what financial support will look like.

Without serious guarantees from the UKRI and Research Councils on funding to cover non-medical breaks from study and extensions that might be necessary down the line due the current disruption, students are worried that necessary pauses to their research could leave them without funding to live on, and are unable to make informed decisions about how to continue their research.

This is a difficult moment for all researchers. Universities across the UK have suspended their core activities or are operating with minimal staff on site, and this is having a severe impact on many postgraduate students’ ability to carry out their research. This is especially complex for international researchers based in the UK, for those who already suffer from mental health and physical ill health, and students who are parents.

For those people, even that work which could be conducted from home becomes a challenge. In these circumstances, postgraduate students find themselves in a difficult situation to undertake and complete successfully their research projects.

Standard bearers

With UKRI and the Research Councils funding more than 20,000 students in the UK, their decisions set the standard. With the open letter, we are asking funding agencies to guarantee an automatic funding extension for all postgraduate students (both Masters and PhD level), for as long as this crisis and university closures continue.

We would discourage funding bodies from adopting a case-by-case consultation approach for granting such funding extensions for two main reasons. First of all, it would produce an amount of casework that will be difficult for the funding body itself to process; and second, it would leave the students in a protracted state of uncertainty that would be even more detrimental to their mental health.

In a nation where more than half of PhD students experience symptoms of psychological distress and one in three is at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder (see section below), this slow response is simply unacceptable. The very fact that the Office for Students and Department for Education have not even mentioned the requirements of postgraduate students, illustrates the scale of how invisible this section of the population is.

Alignment required

Since not everyone is in the same position for funding, with students getting funding from a variety of different agencies, the letter urges all funding bodies clarify their funding terms and conditions and to align to this position.

For instance, the current UKRI grant terms and conditions, especially points 6.1, 8.2, and 8.3, address breaks in work for medical reasons, but need to be clarified to include the breadth of cases that will be impacted by coronavirus, including extensions and non-medical pauses in research due to disruption.

At the moment, all UKRI-funded PhD students must have their funding period extended by up to 13 weeks per year, but only if they can present a medical certificate. The current circumstances are clearly exceptional, and the terms and conditions need to be updated to cover all affected students. We are asking all funding agencies to follow this suggested model.

Mental health and welfare

We have already seen that in this time of crisis universities are too often reverting to an archaic and narrow view of who a ‘student’ is. Students with families, international students, students with disabilities or who are immunocompromised, indeed, any students older than 21 seem to have been forgotten in much of the discourse asking students to leave to return “home”, or in discussions about assessment arrangements.

Funding bodies must not allow this to be yet another case of postgraduate research students falling through the cracks.

Many postgraduate research students have children who they are now having to support. Many will be having to focus on providing community aid or help to family during this crisis. Some will even get ill. They do not know what jobs they will be able to access, or what the state of the higher education sector will be when they finish. In a sector which already has huge problems around access to postgraduate study because of financial barriers, it is unacceptable that students are being left in this uncertainty about where they will find the money to continue their studies.

As an SU, we already know that there is a mental health crisis amongst postgraduate students. A study published in March 2018 found that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience anxiety and depression as the general population.

If the current global pandemic was not enough to contend with, postgraduate students are now faced with opaque processes and uncertainty over whether they should be pausing their degrees, or if their only option financially is to continue working even if this is unsafe or not healthy for them, and anxiety about whether they will have the money to continue paying rent.

A case-by-case system of allocating extensions to funding would only add to this pressure. We need a guarantee across funding bodies and institutions of financial support for all postgraduate students during the COVID pandemic.

Time to listen – and act

Universities and funding bodies must work together to ensure that there are adequate and accessible funds for all students and that they are truly supporting their postgraduates at this time of crisis. This begins with listening to postgraduate students.

Our open letter has gained nearly one and a half thousand signatures in three days: it’s time for funding bodies to start paying attention.

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One response to “Covid-19: Won’t somebody think of the postgraduate research students?

  1. Important issue, well argued. I would extend the argument to include postdoctoral researchers, who are often on fixed-term, project-funded contracts. UKRI can act as a sector leader, not just as a funder who interprets their own terms for each case.

    Extending projects by N months (e.g. to reflect the period of recommended / required social isolation) is a relatively easy decision to implement, in comparison to case-by-case consideration, whether by a funder or an institution. Doing so would be a message direct to individuals rather than through institutions. Post-isolation, cases with extended circumstances could be handled by exception under the ‘normal’ rules, but perhaps with a lighter touch than might otherwise be the case.

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