UKRI is the wrong target for anger at lack of funding support for PGRs

Though many in the sector are justifiably angry at the lack of financial support for PGRs during Covid-19, UKRI needs a different kind of funding settlement if it is to be able to respond to crisis, argues Steph Smith.

Stephanie Smith is Head of Policy (Research and International) at the Russell Group.

Many within the sector this week have rightfully been expressing their frustration around the delays and decision-making surrounding UKRI’s response to the needs of postgraduate research students in light of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Having initially responded quickly to the needs of final year PhD students in April, other PGR groups had to wait until last week for news from UKRI on what support would be available for those due to complete courses after March 2021.

The delay has been trying, and for some students the £19m announced last week feels like too little, too late. With UKRI advising candidates to adjust projects so they can complete within their funding period, as of last week, more than 1,000 researchers had signed a petition asking UKRI to reconsider this position.

There are lessons that should be learned from this experience. For one, the government’s announcement in April was confusing for many. It was also made just before the start of the long Easter weekend, meaning, as is acknowledged in UKRI’s recent report on the issue, that staff and the much needed clarification they could have provided were absent for many days.

Reporting on this, and other Covid-related spending, has also caused more than one headache for university research directors. Trying to find equitable solutions for researchers whose sponsors have taken very different approaches to Covid-related adjustments has not been easy.

Despite this – and do bear with me here – the ire being directed at UKRI today is, for the most part, aimed at the wrong target.

Finite budget

We may not want to acknowledge it, but UKRI has a finite budget, which, despite much government rhetoric, and a full roadmap’s worth of plans, hasn’t yet been supported with the funding uplifts needed to turn these ambitions into reality.

Bear in mind that UKRI commits most of its spending well ahead of time, in the form of ongoing grants and QR, which is worth about £1.6bn alone. Of the uncommitted cash it may have had to spare for 2020-21, it has dedicated:

Add to that the around £63m which will go to support PGRs and you have over £800m in unexpected spend. To put that into context, that’s about the size of the AHRC, NERC and ESRC budgets put together and puts UKRI’s Covid spend a bit higher than the MRC’s entire £745m budget for 2019-20.

Lacking a budget beyond March, UKRI is highly unlikely to have had the cash for all this. To have allocated this money, and permission to spend funds into 2021-22, UKRI and others in BEIS would have had to expend significant political capital making the case for additional support on a case-by-case basis before an array of officials, ministers and special advisors drawn from across BEIS, Treasury and Number Ten.

The Treasury is the ultimate holder of the purse strings on decisions such as these, and with the coronavirus job retention scheme estimated to have cost around £42bn alone,you can well imagine how hard it’s been for UKRI to make the case for additional support.

This doesn’t detract from the real suffering felt by PGRs and others in the system. But over the last few months UKRI is likely to have had to fight very hard to have secured what additional funding it has managed to pry out of HMT. It’s not enough, but from hospitals, to care homes, to free school meals, the demands on the Treasury at the moment are likely to be many.

Although they may not get it right all the time, UKRI has been a key ally in Whitehall over the past few months.

Multi-year settlement

As a sector, what we need to be directing our energy towards now is making the case for a strong multi-year settlement that will allow UKRI to properly support the research base going forward.

QR funding, at least 20 per cent of which UKRI estimates is used to directly support research careers, has fallen 13 per cent since 2010. Meanwhile, six of the nine Research Councils have seen real-terms cuts to their core budgets since 2017, impacting both responsive mode grants and funding for training. Added to this, the training and supervision of PGRs is funded at only 45 per cent of the actual cost.

None of this is in the interests of the research community, and none of it is sustainable. However, it is very difficult to see how UKRI will be able to address these imbalances if it is given a one-year rollover budget at the conclusion of the spending review next week.

UKRI has a people and culture strategy coming out soon which is meant to put researchers, and their wellbeing, at the heart of UK research – but whether UKRI is able to deliver this vision isn’t in their hands alone. It will ultimately be up to the Treasury if researchers, and UK research, are supported in this spending review.

The research community needs to direct its lobbying efforts at Number Eleven if we are to be successful. Given the economic and social return the UK gets from research and innovation, I hope the Treasury will listen.

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