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System errors

Andrew McRae argues that Covid-19 has revealed flaws in the management of postgraduate research students

The tightening of Covid-19 restrictions this month poses fresh challenges for many postgraduate research students across the UK.

Last spring’s lockdown blew holes in the research plans of many of these students, who faced countless obstacles including the closure of laboratories and libraries and the cancellation of fieldwork.

While universities are now better prepared and many research facilities remain open, there are nonetheless renewed, acute pressures. And now, more than ever, systems for managing and overseeing these students are creaking under the strain.

What about the detriment?

As taught programmes flip back to online delivery, “no detriment” is back in the news. At the start of 2020 this was a utopian union slogan, but by the end of the year it was a brand adopted by any university that wanted to be seen to care for its students. It has now been revived with intent by students for lockdown-21. The principle is that taught students should be assessed through methods that acknowledge the ways in which they have been knocked off course. So far—although it gets tougher with each round of assessments—this has been just about possible.

But for postgraduate research students there has been detriment—waves of unmitigable detriment. To be sure, some students have sailed through just fine and will continue to do so, while others have adjusted their projects and got back on course, but a sizeable minority have been stuck with detriment. Now, students are stuck again with challenges including restricted access to archives and constraints on fieldwork and human-participant research.

If you’re a self-funded student with young children and you have lost months of time because of schools being closed, you have been locked out of the British Library manuscripts room (again) and you lost your part-time work months ago, you’ve got detriment.

Patchwork support

Money has made a difference for some—particularly those on studentships—but this has also fallen unevenly. Funders and universities made decisions at pace about how to support their postgraduate research students, and the result is a crazy patchwork of commitments and procedures. Students studying alongside one another have had different levels of support available to them: some may have access to six-month extensions, some three-month, some none at all. Cost has been a consideration behind these decisions, to a greater extent than anyone would feel comfortable trying to justify.

UK Research and Innovation, the biggest funder of home students, has not helped. After setting the bar needlessly high early in the pandemic by offering six-month funded extensions to students in their final year, UKRI’s much weaker and greatly delayed offer to all other students was one of 2020’s shabbiest pandemic moments. It leaves universities to oversee a competition for limited resources among students with manifest needs, who may not get a response to their application until almost 12 months after the pandemic’s outbreak.

UKRI’s cruelty may have been overplayed on social media; after all, there have been meaner funders, the November report bore signs of pressures exerted by UKRI’s stakeholders, and some doctoral training entities have quietly found money to support their students surprisingly well. Nonetheless, the possibility that UKRI may now pass up the opportunity to rethink its position in response to the new lockdown is morally incomprehensible.

Exposing the cracks

Postgraduate research programmes are too commonly held together with sticks and wire anyway. Mental health was a concern long before the pandemic and was the subject of a Research England Catalyst Fund project between 2018 and 2020. Workspace has been a running sore on many campuses for years, with postgraduate research squeezed as universities have increased taught student numbers and research capacity. And some of today’s individual financial horror stories were foreseeable because many students—especially those with unrealistically miserly international funders—were already walking tightropes.

There are issues of visibility here. At a taught level, National Student Survey results are funnelled into league tables, while student numbers feed bottom lines. Governing bodies spend countless hours worrying about this stuff. By comparison, postgraduate research students are less visible, institutionally and also nationally. When politicians bang on about value for money, you can bet they are not thinking about the latest Postgraduate Research Experience Survey results. And when academics have been instructed in the pandemic to focus on ‘the student experience’, how many have heard an implicit ‘undergraduate’ in that phrase?

There are also issues of oversight. Universities waited anxiously for what UKRI decreed because it appeared to be setting ethical and educational standards. Its decision for those students not in their final year, however, was a belated reminder that it thinks more like a funder than a regulator. The Office for Students has not been silent on postgraduate research students, but in practice it lacks the clout to do anything much about the situation. And it is surely no coincidence that UKRI and the Office for Students report to different ministers: if we wanted a system that worked in the interests of postgraduate research students, this is not how we would design it.

How good is good enough?

A final question: Who determines how good a PhD thesis must be in order to pass? In truth, this is one of those academic dilemmas near which it is inadvisable to go; however, here too the pandemic has forced us to look under the carpet. UKRI had a few things to say on the matter in November, not all of which were entirely consistent. It expects that “degree standards and awarding processes” will have been “adapted to accommodate…disruption to projects”; states that “reduced doctoral outputs…should not be seen to diminish standards in doctoral education”; and yet ultimately asserts that “maintaining and regulating standards in doctoral education is the responsibility of universities and the regulatory bodies, not UKRI”.

So a Covid-19 PhD might be different from what a student had originally planned. It might not be as good or as long but it must still be ‘doctoral standard’. And assessments of ‘doctoral standard’ may or may not be adjusted by universities and may or may not be nudged one way or another by examiners at the viva. Meanwhile, the biggest funder expresses expectations while shrugging its shoulders about regulation.

For students, this might be unnerving; for those of us involved in the management of postgraduate research students, it should cause concern. Who is taking responsibility for ensuring that the country’s system of postgraduate research education, upon which so much of our research reputation rests, is working?

If Covid-19 has been higher education’s stress test, we can see the flaws clearly enough. Many universities have responded well, most supervisors have behaved superbly and the majority of students will complete and graduate. But students have faced an uncomfortable level of chance in the system, and too many have looked in vain for safety nets. Coming out of the pandemic, we should be asking whether this is good enough.

Andrew McRae is dean of postgraduate research at the University of Exeter.