Why did we leave PGRs hanging on for six months?

Andrew McRae reviews the latest announcements on support for postgraduate research students from UK Research and Innovation, asking why it's taken so long to let them down.

Postgraduate research students funded by UK Research and Innovation have reacted angrily to last week’s Review of Extensions for Students Impacted by Covid-19, and associated funding announcement.

After the rapid and generous support provided earlier in the pandemic to students in their final year of funding (which I discussed for Wonkhe at the time), this was the moment to address the needs of others. They feel let down, and they have good cause.

PGRs are at the hard end of Covid. Taught students will get their degrees, one way or another. Most academic staff will keep their jobs through the pandemic, albeit with research projects often delayed or remodelled. Among PGRs the effects have been felt unevenly, and many students are progressing just fine.

But there is no denying that PGRs have been uniquely exposed to the effects of Covid, which has knocked projects and lives off course, in some cases irreparably.

Mind the gaps

One figure, though carefully unstated, lies uncomfortably at the heart of the communications last week. That figure is £62 million – the gap between £81m, the need for additional support revealed by UKRI’s summer survey of its PGRs, and the £19m that UKRI is now delivering to research organisations (mainly universities).

People at UKRI may be feeling that the outlay of £19m is not winning them much love. It will be divided between research organisations, and used to support students “who are unable to mitigate delays of Covid-19 or adjust their projects” (but not – and hey, thanks for leaving those of us on the ground to interpret this distinction – “to cover time lost due to Covid-19”).

If it is distributed well, it will help to alleviate some of the more extreme cases of distress. But its own research has just demonstrated that it is not enough – the report estimates that “77% of non-final year students required extensions of an average of 5.1 months”.

The figure of £62m also underscores the yawning inequities across the population of UKRI-funded PGRs. Most final-year students were awarded funded extensions; last week’s report states that the average extension granted was 4.6 months. Granted, the needs of final-year students were more urgent, but the pressures on those forced to pause or redirect their energies in the middle of research projects were always likely to be harder to compensate. Anyone could see this coming.

There are also myriad local inequities, since doctoral training entities (DTPs, DTEs, and so forth) have been empowered since the spring – indeed encouraged – to use underspent resources in their budgets to support non-final-year students. While all entirely proper, we know little about what has been spent, and how. Perhaps there are only two certainties – firstly, that these underspends will amount in total only to a fraction of £62m; and secondly, that individual DTEs will have interpreted the instructions differently, communicated differently, and had different levels of resource on which to draw.

Hence the level of expectation attached to the UKRI survey of students that led to the report. While some degree of inequity is inevitable, surely this would be the moment for UKRI to raise the bar.

And hence also the question many are asking now – if they were never prepared to find the money that the survey was always going to identify as necessary to fix this problem, why delay things for months by conducting the survey and writing a report? If £19m was the budget, it would have been better for students to know this in the summer.

And that’s it from us

Some of the creaking you can hear in the pages of this report is the sound of the ropes binding the various organisations with an interest in supporting PGRs. Indeed one way of reading the saga of Covid support for UKRI-funded PGRs is that a handful of people in Swindon have been patching, scraping and tidying as well as they can.

This report is deeply apologetic about the events of the spring. The announcement about final-year students was made too quickly and with little consultation. That’s all correct, but whose announcement was it? And whose money was it? My understanding is that there was coordination with government, and possibly also new money, which is why the announcement was presented under the smiling face of the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway. (It’s difficult to check this, since the information has been removed from the web.) But not last week’s report: UKRI is on its own for this one.

The decision on finalists also posed challenges to universities, since many studentships are co-funded between research organisations and UKRI. If UKRI granted a six-month extension for its share, would universities and other host organisations do the same? Evidently this has been a major source of tension in recent months, and the report states that “co-funders would not be able to contribute towards the extension costs of some students”.

University finances are under unprecedented strain, but let’s be honest – for those universities that did not match the UKRI commitment in the spring, and are not prepared to do so for any future extension promises, it’s not a case of not having the money. It’s because they have decided there are higher priorities than supporting PGRs to finish their projects. In a perfect world, a university’s level of support for Covid-affected PGRs would be stamped onto the first page of institutional environment statements for REF2020, as concrete evidence of all the assertions about commitments to research culture.

And where does the decision leave universities like my own, which have already established more generous extension policies for internally-funded students than what UKRI is now proposing? This will create further problems of equity on our campuses, with holders of those prized UKRI studentships potentially having a harder time than some of their peers. And interestingly, all these decisions will fall to universities rather than the independent, usually multi-institutional DTEs: a shift of approach that has mystified many people.

Restructure, restructure, restructure

UKRI communications to students in the past week have rested heavily, if also uncomfortably, on one piece of advice: “[UKRI] is strongly advising all funded students to speak to their supervisor about adjusting projects to complete a doctoral-level qualification within their funded period.”

This is valuable, correct, and an example of UKRI’s leadership setting the tone for the sector. But it is also at least six months too late. Yes, UKRI, along with everyone else involved, has been making these noises since early in the first lockdown, but context matters.

It is one thing to say this while asking students to fill out a questionnaire asking how much extra support they might need, and another to do so several months later in a report constructed around the edges of a £62m black hole. Many students have already made changes, but some have deferred painful decisions – for the simple reason that researchers are deeply committed to their projects. They completed the survey; they waited; they hoped.

And that’s it?

This report marks the latest and possibly final step in a well-intentioned but incoherent national project to support Covid-affected PGR students. The blame for that does not lie solely at the feet of UKRI. But organisations and governments are rightly judged on the basis of how well they support their most vulnerable members. For those of us involved in the management of research in the UK, this is not a moment for pride.

One response to “Why did we leave PGRs hanging on for six months?

  1. I thought this was very good, except for “[UKRI] is strongly advising all funded students to speak to their supervisor about adjusting projects to complete a doctoral-level qualification within their funded period.” I don’t see how you can all this valuable, correct and leaderly tone-setting – it is execrable. UK PhDs, at three years, are already laughably short compared to those in competing countries – every year matters. If the COVID year (or two…) is the one where data were supposed to be collected but weren’t, then no amount of “adjustment” is going to leave that student with a viable PhD at the end. Sure, we can *call* it a PhD, but that doesn’t make it one on the international job market. What counts is that precious publication, and you can’t publish excuses. Of course, wealthy labs in the golden triangle will find extra support for their PhD students from their slush funds, thus deepening the winner-take-all dynamic that infects British academia. For the rest… well we will just lose that crop of students. It’s foolish and short-sighted.

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