2020 made us too – the pandemic postgraduates

Andrew McRae considers the issues facing postgraduate research students in the year ahead

We know what qualities are required of undergraduates entering university this autumn, because Universities UK told us.

Above all, it appears, they need to be strong. As we await the release of an equivalent video for postgraduate research (PGR) students, it is worth reflecting on the challenges they will face, and the consequences for those of us teaching them. Their experiences will be unlike any that their supervisors have confronted themselves.

For the first few months of lockdown, managers of PGR programmes were overwhelmingly concerned with the interests of current students. As I have discussed here before (and more here), this involved a furious period of creating and revising policies, and intense struggles to secure funding for extensions of programmes and studentships, where appropriate. All of this will continue, but the 2020 starters raise a whole new set of issues.

How will they pay for that?

One of the first rules of managing PGR programmes is that whenever times are hard you can expect some bright spark from finance to discover that these students are costing the university money. For someone trained to see students as sources of income, this can feel like locating a key to the safe. Stop teaching PGRs and we can fill that hole in the budget, right?

It’s not as simple as that, of course. There are many reasons why a university would devote resources to PGRs: their contribution to research capacity and culture, their significance to the REF and league tables, their place in internationalisation strategies, and so forth. And universities don’t lose money on all PGRs. But when times are really hard – I mean, mass redundancies hard – all these arguments can be harder to nail. That “studentships” budget-line is eminently raidable.

Funding for PGRs is nonetheless a complex jigsaw puzzle. Ten PGRs working in the same room may be supported by a combination of research councils, charities, private industry, foreign governments, endowments, the students themselves, and the university. Many packages will be pieced together by a combination of the above, maybe even without the student ever understanding the proportions involved. And many of the self-funders typically rely on part-time teaching (another budget-line now under pressure).

Notably, it will not only be universities tightening their spending on PGRs. All of the above sources of funding – with the arguable exception, in the short term at least, of research councils – are going to be affected by Covid and its economic effects. The impact of this may be felt less in 2020-21 than might otherwise have been expected, on account of the fact that a significant proportion of contracts with prospective students had been agreed by the time that Covid-19 hit. The inevitable downturn in PGR numbers might quite possibly be more pronounced in 2021-22.

How will they manage that?

Let’s say a student has been appointed to a project that begins on campus in autumn 2020 and involves twelve months of research in the Amazon, leaving June 2021. The studentship is funded by a grant held by the supervisor, specifically designed to examine the Amazon region. The student is expecting to work in the Amazon, the supervisor needs the student to work in the Amazon, but nobody knows now whether the university’s insurers will cover the trip come the spring. What happens?

While that’s a hypothetical case, questions like this are being asked right now at universities all across the country. After shelling out (quite properly) for extensions to cover unavoidable delays to current students, no university wants to sleepwalk into a new set of claims coming from 2020-21 starters. The prospect of being sued under consumer rights law is also entirely plausible. Unlike students on taught programmes, every PGR has an individualized contract, and the university has a responsibility to consider and offset reasonably foreseeable risks.

When we first faced these questions at my own university, earlier in the summer, it became apparent that we needed some institutional guidance on pandemic planning assumptions for the coming two years. Do we expect travel to Brazil to be possible next June? Do we expect our research laboratories to be open at full capacity by March? Do we expect practical theatre studies research to be possible by December? Since there has been little need to consider this stuff for taught students, we found ourselves drafting our university’s planning assumptions for the Covid future, giving shape to the narrative of the pandemic’s progress.

So – is there a ”risk” of campus closures in 2020-21 or a “significant risk”? Questions like that had to be answered.

Comms, culture and campus

While part of the exercise was semantics, the key has been communication with incoming students. A small number have been advised to defer, since there is a high risk to their projects. A much larger number have discussed and agreed contingency plans with supervisors. For some projects, maybe there’s another river system that might, if necessary, serve the researcher’s purposes almost as well as the Amazon. And many are just choosing to accept a degree of unpredictability as part of the pandemic PhD equation.

We are also well aware that life on campus will be very different for the foreseeable future. Typically, PGRs work in shared offices and labs, often cramped even by pre-Covid standards. For 2020-21, when socially distanced space will be at a premium, much more time will necessarily be spent off campus. Many students may in fact opt to start their projects from a distance, taking advantage of online induction and training, and the expectation that most supervision will be virtual anyway.

The meaning of “research culture” will shift accordingly. Some existing students have been delighted by the switch to online seminars, coffee mornings, and so forth. If you are living a distance from campus, and maybe juggling study with family or caring commitments, this has been transformative. But many others are feeling isolated and frustrated, stuck alone in a single room for most of every day, perhaps continents away from loved ones. Universities will need to work extra hard in support of new students, to ensure these conditions can sustain them.

Skills

Postgraduate research will continue through the pandemic, but we need to be honest about the changed conditions of work and the risks to many projects. Let’s leave strength for the undergraduates – PGRs will need to be flexible, adaptable, resourceful, patient and independent.

Arguably, these are precisely the core skills PGRs have always required most of all, although we have not often enough paused to reflect on their value.

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