Rebecca Teague is a PhD student at the University of Sussex.


Billy Bryan is a policy consultant at Technopolis-Group working in higher education and research policy.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, causing devastation to human life and national economies alike.

Here in the UK, almost all sectors of the economy have felt the brunt of this – and Higher education is no exception, with universities, their staff, and students having to adapt to stay afloat. Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) have had to deal with a multitude of issues due to their dual student / research staff status: having their research and learning put on hold, and not being able to engage in most usual paid roles, including teaching.

Besides this, many have to deal with the uncertainty of whether their final deadline for submission will be extended and whether their funding (if they have any) will also cover that additional time. Some lucky PGRs have been provided relief by the major UK funding bodies, but the funding of PGRs is uneven and many will simply have to absorb the lost time if their university chooses not to grant extensions. This is not to mention the serious woes of international students, those dealing with mental health issues, disabled students, carers and other underrepresented groups who will suffer disproportionately from this crisis.

Writing wrong?

It is likely that the pandemic, and lack of help from universities and funding bodies, will cause many PGRs to be pushed into studying beyond their registration (or ‘funded’) period. Interestingly, when the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publishes the number of active PGR students, it omits the population classed as “writing-up” (after consultation with UK governments and funding bodies). A “writing-up” student is someone who has entered the new academic year outside of their registration period without submitting a thesis – the HESA definition is:

Students who are normally expected to submit a thesis to the HE provider for examination, have completed the work of their course and are not making significant demands on HE providers resources, plus those on sabbatical.”

A worrying trend

This may seem like a harmless practical decision, but data from HESA shows that the proportion of total UK PGRs classed as “writing-up” has increased from around 23.5 per cent in 2000-01, to 28 per cent in 2018-19 (40,745). This number has increased by 1.1 per cent since 2000-01, and this rate of growth has risen more recently to 2.3 per cent per year since 2012. However, we aren’t likely to see accurate data from 2019-20 or 2020-21, according to predictions from Wonkhe, which suggest that the numbers from this period will be “irrevocably skewed by circumstances far beyond the control of higher education providers”. We might assume, though, that the current disruption will only cause these numbers to increase.

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But what does this classification really mean? “Writing-up” student populations are combined with sabbatical students (a vanishingly small number, e.g. around 40 in 2007-08) and omitted from the total student population published online. The period of registration differs between HEIs and funders, but data collected by HESA would show whether they are within it or outside it.

This wrinkle in HESA is designed to, in its words, bring the published number of active PGRs “more into line with funding and fee arrangements” – suggesting that most of the students classed as “writing-up” are likely outside of their funded period, though potentially still paying fees. They are also defined as no longer “making significant demands on HE providers’ resources” (accessing offices, libraries, labs or staff time), though this seems unlikely given that students will at least be working with their supervisors on preparing their thesis.

Who are “writing-up” students?

These students are likely in a range of situations. Most will be in some form of work (inside or outside the university), with the rest continuing to work unpaid and living on savings. This might be a planned or unplanned period, though we can assume that no one really plans to still be writing their thesis after their registered time limit and without funding. Time spent as a “writing-up” student will also vary widely depending on the situation, and a long time may increase the chances that no thesis is submitted at all. Importantly, we don’t know. This data not is collected or routinely analysed and made available, at least not publicly.

We suggest that there could be three main groups:

  • Academic escapees – those in non-academic employment (whether they intended this or not) finishing their theses in the evenings/weekends/holiday leave, with plans to submit
  • Perpetual PhD students – those still in the lab/library working on their thesis as their full-time job, perhaps picking up teaching or technician work, relying on savings or their parents/partners to support their last stretch. This is the group we would expect to find students hit by Covid-19 delays to research
  • The disenfranchised – those who are not liquid financially, do not have the privilege of family/partners to support them and who have lost the support of their university – and are not currently making significant progress towards completion

It’s complicated

If it feels like we have made assumptions here about who exactly a “writing-up” student is, we have. HESA’s data is frustratingly one-dimensional and throws up far more questions than it answers on the group of more than one in four PGR students. We do not know how they are supporting themselves, how long they have spent classified as “writing-up”, and if students who default to this status are any less likely to submit a thesis and obtain a degree. The definitions themselves, while somewhat muddy, could be used to accurately depict the higher education student environment, but only if this information was analysed and made available.

Having this data disaggregated as far as possible would be even more helpful: by all protected characteristics, discipline, type of doctorate, mode of study, geography and funding status. This is not an insurmountable goal. Data at the undergraduate level is far more detailed and disaggregated, and the complexity at postgraduate level not so significant that it would be impossible to report better data.

Although much of the impact of coronavirus is beyond a university’s control, some are entirely within it. Choosing not to fund full extensions for all students, choosing not to employ fee waivers and abolishing the GTA/doctoral tutor roles that students relied on even before the pandemic, will make this situation far worse. Individual universities and even UKRI can help or hinder students on their own terms and cannot be dictated to, but improving the data collected on graduate students, particularly in this hidden time period where they are neither ‘active’ students or doctoral graduates, will allow policymakers and lobbyists within the sector to decide how well universities are taking care of their students.

Filling in the blanks

Pre-pandemic, nearly three of every ten students were “writing-up”. It seems this population will only grow in the time of Coronavirus, as delays to project completion inevitably delay submission and push students into the new academic year in this hidden category of ‘done but not yet done’. But how many students fall foul of this will be unclear to us for years to come unless data such as average time to completion, submission and success rate, intermission rates, funding status and more are collected by HESA, analysed, and made publicly available.

The sector’s reaction to this crisis is still unfolding. The UKCGE’s guidance for universities is instructive in what must be done: secure PGR funding sources and help ensure their timely completion. UKRI have chosen a different route for their students, which has not come without criticism. We must have the data to know what the impact of this will be – and help prospective PGRs answer the question: is a doctorate worth it?

Note: The data on doctoral students cited here for the years between 2016-17 and 2018-19 was obtained from HESA as a bespoke request. Figures prior to 2016-17 were taken from HESA Open Data releases. Data was collected differently, or not collected at all, between 1994-2000.

2 responses to “How many postgraduate research students are writing up?

  1. The reason why students are writing up is pretty clear once you ask them (I was a writing up PhD myself) – the 3 year degree is an inadequate amount of time to produce the quality of work we are expected to complete theses that place you in competitive standing for academic jobs (common for Economics PhDs at my alma mater to take up to 5 years to finish actually, they just come ‘off register’ which is easy for domestic/EU students without visa concerns) whilst also doing all the other things career services are advising you to do so you are *actually* employable at the end of your PhD (volunteering, internships, etc), especially outside of academia where you look like you have just postponed your entrance into the ‘real world’. Science students often have abusive PIs who demand them to work on projects unrelated to the PhD, leaving many scrambling to ‘write up’ at the very end. My current position (in HE but in administration) uses some of the skills that I developed as a PhD student but mainly uses experiences I had as a student representative, which was definitely at least a part time job in its demands on my time during my studies. You’re supposed to complete hard hitting, innovative research, teach where you can get it, develop your CV in skills and experiences whilst potentially balancing caring responsibilities, and trying to stay human on top of it all by having hobbies, bits of downtime etc. No wonder it takes longer these days. You don’t just waltz into an academic position these days ABD.

  2. This is an odd article, seemingly written from a scientist’s perspective even though most PhD students are not scientists (and are therefore much less likely to be funded). Most institutions have a standard PhD offer comprising a registration period (with fees), plus a writing up period (with no or fractional fees covering basic costs during that period). 3+1 is not unusual. Most students submit during the writing up period. Some regulations speciy that submission prior to the writing up is classed as ‘early’. Some funded science models work differently (blurring or funding the writing up period), but students using the writing up period to write up is not unusual.

    It would be interesting to see if the ~4.5% increase over 17 years is due to changes in subject mix (e.g. a proportional decrease in science students as self-funded arts & social science student numbers have grown with the overall growth in PhD numbers). Though I would agree that there have been significant increases in what is expected of PhD students over the same time (and that UKRI has more or less washed its hands of its reponsibilities to PhD students during the pandemic).

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