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More questions than answers as PhD students get six months more funding

UKRI has gifted final-year PhD students an extra six months of funding - but is it enough? Andrew McRae on Covid-19 and the economics of PGR
This article is more than 4 years old

Andrew McRae is Dean of Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter and was formerly Head of the English Department.

In the hours before the Easter break, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) gifted final-year PhD students an extra six months of funding.

It is symptomatic of this period of accelerated policy-making that this announcement felt long-awaited. It is perhaps also a sign of the times that its details took many people by surprise – begging as many questions as they answered, inciting a wave of grumpy tweets from students, and leaving universities with fresh headaches to nurse over the vacation.

Covid-19 is presenting intense challenges for postgraduate research students (PGRs). Some are unable to proceed with the core business of research – conducting experiments, collecting data, working in archives, and so on. Many are international students, sitting out university closures either in their home countries, and many have young children, and therefore be affected by the closure of nurseries and schools.

The funding of PGRs is also highly uneven. Some are entirely funded by external bodies, such as UK research funders or international government schemes. Some are entirely self-funded. Many others are supported by partnership arrangements involving some combination of a funding agency, a business or charity, and/or a university.

These arrangements, encouraged by UKRI over the past couple of decades, mean that a UKRI-funded Centre for Doctoral Training or Doctoral Training Partnership might well involve commitments from several universities and a dozen or so external bodies. Covid-19 might upset these arrangements in all sorts of ways. We probably even have students co-funded by companies that will not exist by the time this crisis has passed.

Locked out of labs and offices, many PGR students understandably have felt anxious, even abandoned, over the past weeks. But their interests were raised in some of the earliest national lobbying, and has been the subject of intense work within universities. PGR management and support teams have been stretched, tracking individual students in especially difficult circumstances, and rewriting policies within days.

Universities and SUs that have worked hard to maintain systems of PGR student representation, and that now have strong and articulate student leaders in post, are unusually well placed. Trust is a precious commodity.

The lucky few

Funding for lost time has been looming from the very beginning as the single biggest question for PGRs. Universities appreciated the lead that UKRI took on 26 March, when it announced a policy of funded extensions for any student, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But that statement left some loose ends, particularly concerning the overall cost and how it would be covered. Hence the level of anticipation in advance of last Thursday’s announcement.

Specifically, UKRI declared that its funded doctoral students in their final year will receive:

an extension to their research with additional grants, known as a costed extension, of up to six months providing them with peace of mind that they will be able to complete their studies. The extension offer will apply to final year PhD awards that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has initially been interpreted as a commitment to a blanket six-month extension for all eligible students. That’s not exactly what it says – note the conditional clauses “up to” and “PhD awards that have been impacted” – but at this stage it is fair to assume this is what it means. In advance of any further details regarding process, it looks as though any student with a completion date in the designated period who sticks up a hand will be given six months of funding, from a new government pot of money.

The key to that announcement was the quote from the Science Minister, Amanda Solloway, signalling that this was new money and possibly also a modification of the government’s approach to PGRs. She said:

The extra six months study funding announced today will give students who have spent years on their research, and who in some cases are helping in the fight against coronavirus, certainty that they will be able to complete their courses in spite of the disruption caused by this outbreak. We are committed to investing in the future of our world-leading science and research community.

We might reasonably infer from this that certain lines of argument have worked with the government. Note, for instance, “spent years on their research”, “helping in the fight against coronavirus”, and “investing in the future”. The stuff she was presumably told about complex case-by-case circumstances? Maybe that just didn’t crack it.

And maybe the comment about investment helps to explain why the extensions will be for six months, when at present we are still in the first month of a lockdown of uncertain duration. At a time when there is so much talk nationally about ending the lockdown, an assumption of six-month delays is striking, going further than most student demands, and most likely also exceeding internal planning assumptions within universities.

But perhaps it makes more sense when considering the employment prospects for PhD graduates in the current circumstances, as universities and research funders count their losses and scale back on recruitment plans. Just weeks ago many academics were on strike over the plight of the precariat; with the possible exception of some areas of medical research, Covid-19 will make this situation worse. In short, the extensions help an acutely vulnerable cohort, and hence support the wider national interests of maintaining the research base.

Following the money

The greatest drawback to the announcement is the way it divides the PGR community. While this body is never especially cohesive, given the markedly different circumstances in which any two given PGRs may operate, UKRI has driven a wedge between different categories of students. UKRI-funded students with less that a year until completion are today considerably happier than those with more than a year to go.

There were doubtless reasons not to like the “case-by-case” approach of the 26 March UKRI statement – it is cumbersome, raises questions of process, and could place unnecessary pressures on students to demonstrate impact – but it was at least consistent and ethically defensible. Most universities had in principle adopted it for granting extensions (though not necessarily funded extensions).

There is also uncertainty for students who are not wholly funded by UKRI. The “frequently asked questions” document released in support of the funding announcement places an unnerving weight on the verb “hope”. Looking towards co-funded students, who in fact are the vast majority, it states:

We hope that funding partners will be able to provide additional funding to support extensions … but understand many partner organisations are facing uncertainty and financial constraints too.”

Most universities will appreciate this as code; in effect we have little choice but to match the UKRI commitment. But external partners will feel less pressure, maybe taking the acknowledgement of their “financial constraints” as an invitation to step back. Pressure to fill these gaps will thus in turn weigh heavily on universities, hit now by multiple demands of uncertain dimensions. The UUK proposal (also published over Easter) for a doubling of QR funding would help to meet these costs, but as we all wait for a response to that request students will quite reasonably be wanting answers.

And there is even more uncertainty for students not funded at all by UKRI. There will be pressure on universities in these cases as well. For example, if your university has made a fuss about its own branded studentships, it can hardly afford now to stand back and watch these students get a lesser deal than those funded by UKRI. But then it will need also to consider students funded by bodies less generous than UKRI, or those co-funded with external organisations which are perhaps more likely to be withdrawing than extending their support. Estimating the cost of these measures is complicated by a number of unknowns: whether to apply funded extensions case-by-case or across the board, the length of the current (and any possible future) lockdown, and UKRI’s assertion that there may be further commitments from them still to come.

Finally, for self-funded students there is not so much uncertainty as a sinking feeling. If you are a self-funded Masters by Research student in the sciences, for instance, locked out of your lab for four months, you face losing almost 10 per cent of the time for which you carefully budgeted, and if you are unlucky in the timing closer to 15-20 per cent of the time designated for experiments.

Universities across the country are looking into hardship funds, which tend not to be geared towards PGRs. They may also need to consider what “mitigation” might mean for a research dissertation. There is a risk that some students will be lost if no solutions for them are identified.

Squeaky bum time

Many people in control of university finances struggle to understand the economics of PGRs. Conditioned to see universities as businesses and PGTs as nice little earners, they can struggle to appreciate the difference that a consonant can make to the bottom line. There are many reasons for universities to support PGR programmes, but making money is never one of them. Now such people – finance directors, lay governors, and so forth – will be presented with blank cheques to sign, even if universities are to match the UKRI commitments to date. There are good reasons for PGRs to feel uneasy.

The UKRI announcement is thus welcome to the extent that it injects fresh resource into the system, offering a powerful statement of support and making a material difference to many students. But it also fractures the PGR community, stretching fragile bonds of trust between students, universities and funders, and positing the risk that not all universities will be able to match this level of support for all students. In some respects it serves merely to underscore the Covid-19 questions that were already pressing upon everyone with an interest in PGR programmes. These were never going to be easy to resolve – and UKRI has not necessarily made the job any easier.

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