Precarity and the new deal for postgraduate research

UKRI has published its response to the call for input on the government’s New Deal for Postgraduate Research. James Coe looks at whether the new deal looks like a good deal for PGR students.

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

When is a new deal not a new deal?

For the government, the objective for the New Deal for Postgraduate Research as set out in their in their R&D People and Culture Strategy stated that:

This work will address the issues that contribute to precarity in early careers, and prepare students for rewarding careers across the whole economy. The support provided through the New Deal should also enable a more diverse range of potential students to consider careers in research

For UKRI in responding to the call for evidence on the New Deal, it includes reflection on the progress to date in increasing its minimum stipend by 20 per cent; embedding EDI within doctoral training investments; investing in widening participation and supporting student mental health; and establishing a forum for discussing PGR conditions.

It also includes some pretty big commitments to the future. This includes reviewing the UKRI stipend and its baseline based on an analysis of student costs (UKRI currently provides some sort of funding to around 20 per cent of PGR students), exploring more diversity in taking on doctoral study, supporting greater movement between disciplines and the sector, and announcing the results of its Collective Talent Funding later this year.

Happy days are here again

And so far the sector has responded pretty warmly to the proposals. The Russell Group praised the proposals as the opportunity to recruit and retain more postgraduate students. The University Alliance welcomed the renewed focus on non-traditional modes of obtaining a PhD.

It is perhaps not surprising that the proposals have been so warmly received. These are measures that the sector has been calling for, for a long time. The prospect of a further increase to the minimum stipend by close to 20 per cent is significant. Embedding EDI considerations as a requirement for doctoral training is impactful. Wellbeing and widening participation absolutely needs more attention. And the PGR funders and providers forum could support even further reaching decisions.

There are however a few thorny issues that will need careful attention.

We are turning the corner

UKRI has already increased total stipend funding by a total of £90m raising the minimum to £18,622 full time equivalent. This is a minimum with the opportunity for providers to top it up, or for PGR students to work which many do, but it is below what someone on the real living wage (not to be confused with national minimum wage) would earn over a year working a 35 hour a week job. The public policy question is not only what kinds of research should be funded, but the level to which these researchers should be remunerated.

Albeit wages alone do not tell the full story of economic precarity. PGR students who may otherwise be eligible for Universal Credit may have its full value deducted from their stipend. In other words, students that are eligible for state support may receive none because of their stipend. A previous analysis by Advance HE noted that this situation can render childcare unaffordable for some students and mean that they drop out of study. Statistically, this phenomenon is more likely to impact women. Advance HE encouraged UKRI to consider childcare grants and the rules around required study volume and stipend receipt.

If there is no additional national funding, both of these financial considerations require conversations on the total number of students receiving stipends and the trade-offs implicit in the generosity of that funding. There are no easy answers here.

Don’t swap horses midstream

If it is to be a “new deal” and not simply a better deal there also have to be considerations of how PGR students’ conditions can be improved through incentives in the wider research ecosystem.

This might involve a rehypothecation of QR weighted more toward the number of PhDs. It likely includes measurements in the people, culture and environment element of REF not only on the diversity of researchers but on the nature of their contracts, their aggregate pay, and the take up of parental leave policies.

Balancing the needs of individuals and making a whole research system work is not easy and there is absolutely no debate that being a PhD student is hard. However, there is a difference between hardship because of study and hardship because of study conditions.

Currently, the proposals are undoubtedly a better deal but whether it is a New Deal will depend on the decisions UKRI makes on the distribution of funding – and how other sector bodies respond.

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