Policies affecting the lives of tens of thousands of postgraduate research students (PGRs) in the wake of Covid-19 continue to unfold in unexpected ways.
Like many others around the sector, I have spent time in meetings debating at length the gnomic utterances of United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), some of which have misled large sections of the sector – others of which have at least appeared contradictory.
We enter July with many students far behind on their schedules, and uncertain what the future holds.
The latest epistle from UKRI comes in the form of a response by Professor Rory Duncan, UKRI’s Director of Talent and Skills, to a widely-circulated petition “regarding specific reasonable adjustments for disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students due to Covid-19’”. The petition demanded six-month funded extensions “for all PhD students”, attacking the prevailing model of case-by-case consideration. The UKRI response moves this discussion forward, but not without prompting further questions – and underscoring the challenges of coherent policy-making in this area.
Delay or derail
The bottom line across the sector is that Covid-19 will delay, and in some cases derail, PGR projects. And this will cost universities money, whether through the extension of funding packages, the easing of fees, or simply the cost of extended periods of resourcing and supervision. Having written earlier in the lockdown about this issue – which receives less attention than it deserves – it is worth asking where we are now. Which questions have been answered, and which ones remain? And for the longer term, how might the plight of our PGRs now prompt a rethink of how we manage this critical slice of higher education in the future?
The letter performed its main task admirably. While it insisted that UKRI-funded students in genuine need of support must get it, it trenchantly defended the principle of case-by-case consideration. In a world of constrained, finite resources, the demand for blanket extensions was always logically, and indeed ethically, dubious.
In Duncan’s words: “Funding students who do not require financial support to finish their degree would be inappropriate and may diminish our ability to fund other things in the future, including for example future PhD students.” Precisely; hopefully we have heard the last of this argument.
Duncan also confronted a deep-rooted myth – that UKRI is offering no support to students who were not in their final year of funding at the time of lockdown. “I note the perception that extensions are only available to final year students or capped at a maximum of six months. This is not the case – any UKRI student whose funded period ends after 1 March 2020 who has been affected by Covid-19 can request a costed extension from their training grant holder.” The provenance of this myth is fascinating to the afficionado, but admittedly less important now than the questions that remain. First of these is: where is all the necessary money going to come from, given that underspend in doctoral training entities is very unlikely to cover the need? And the second is: what limitations might UKRI put on claims, particularly in terms of the possible maximum length of extensions?
The answers to these questions will have serious consequences. Hopefully by the end of the summer, once UKRI has examined the evidence of its recent institutional surveys focused on the impact of Covid-19 on PGRs, we will have a new package of support, with clear guidelines about how it can be used. But how long, in all fairness, can we keep students waiting when they may need to make some big decisions about the shape and future of their projects?
The PGR policy problem
The letter also exposed a more fundamental weakness in PGR policy-making. The petitioners addressed themselves to UKRI, just as universities have tended to wait for UKRI to take the lead on this issue. But not only is UKRI in reality a coalition of research councils, each of which has historically approached PGR funding differently, it also has limited control over this field.
In reality, by their own reckoning roughly 80 per cent of PGRs in UK universities are not UKRI funded, while most UKRI-badged studentships also include a percentage of match-funding from universities and/or external partners. UKRI is certainly the most influential stakeholder in this area of policy, but it is a very long way from being the only one.
This has put universities, and in turn students, in uneasy positions. It has been entirely rational to wait for guidance from UKRI, given the widespread desire for a coherent, national response to these challenges, and a hope for another burst of state largesse. The injection of support for students in their final year has indeed made a big difference to a lot of people.
But universities still face further tricky decisions. Given the match-funding of studentships, UKRI’s decisions are not cost-free for universities. Match-funding of PhD studentships seemed like a nice idea in the good times, and in truth research councils leaned heavily on universities to further this agenda. But the result now is that universities, perhaps in severe financial distress, are scrambling to get a grip on the possible consequences of these arrangements.
All parties involved in these decisions are also becoming acutely aware of the complex, in some instances contested, relationships between UKRI, universities, and doctoral training entities. Who now makes the policies? Who now makes the decisions? Who communicates authoritatively with students? And who now bears the cost? These can be complex negotiations, typically involving several universities and even more external partners. These relationships have perhaps never been stress-tested, and not all parties have come through the past months entirely content.
Finding the funding
The situations facing students holding studentships funded from other sources can be still more confusing. In his letter, Duncan politely points out the limits of UKRI’s influence; meanwhile, at universities across the country decisions are being made about the extent to which internal funds might be made available for these purposes.
Will an offer be made to all students or just to those in their final year? Will support be offered to students funded by external sources that are not willing or able to fund an extension? And on what criteria will these decisions be made? Looking across the sector, it seems now certain that different universities will reach different positions on these questions.
My own university took a leap forward by implementing comparatively early a policy of funded extensions of up to six months for all internally-funded students, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Assessing the first round of applications, it is immediately apparent how intense the needs of some students are. Some are doing just fine, of course, and have not applied.
But others are coping not only with the closure of labs, but with caring responsibilities, family anxieties, and mental health concerns, among other issues. Moreover, in some cases six months, while it may appear generous and surely stretches the magnanimity of our governing body, will not be sufficient. For instance, students whose work is season-dependent may face the choice of taking extra time self-funded or reconfiguring their projects.
And then things get even more demanding. The challenge of dealing with external partners, such as businesses and charities, remains. Few will welcome further requests for funds; some may have been damaged, or even blown away by Covid-19. Options to support self-funded students are more limited still, but many universities are reviewing fee arrangements and access to hardship funds.
And international students are also of acute concern to managers of doctoral programmes, as they were for the hundreds of people who petitioned UKRI. Again UKRI has no control at all over these students: not over their funding, not over their visas. Some will find their funders (most often international government bodies, occasionally private organisations or families) to be generous, while others will be themselves in straitened circumstances. Some of the students most affected may also be most reticent to ask for help.
As the UKRI letter demonstrates, it is by no means clear who has proper oversight of this tangled, inequitable field of policy. The world of doctoral training entities, match-funded studentships, industry collaboration, and so forth, has transformed in the past decade or two, without much reflection or oversight. The QAA’s influence is limited these days, while the Office for Students never projects a convincing grasp of PGR matters.
Addressing the petition to UKRI was therefore fair enough in the circumstances; however, as the response politely points out, while UKRI may well be expected to set the tone, and even to uncover some fresh sources of money, they can’t fix what they don’t own. There are wells of goodwill towards PGRs, not least on university campuses, but the challenges presented by Covid-19 suggest the need for a rethink. Perhaps we should aim to enter the next crisis with students having a greater sense that someone is looking out for them.