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Pressure mounts on UKRI to increase support for PhD students


Researchers urge funder to reconsider its latest recommendations on extensions for students affected by Covid-19

More than 1,000 researchers have written to UK Research and Innovation calling on the funder to “urgently rethink” its support for PhD students whose research has been disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis.

The open letter follows a backlash from PhD students last week after UKRI “strongly” advised students to adjust their projects so they could complete their research on time despite delays caused by the pandemic.

The funder said it would also make an additional £19 million available, but only to support doctoral students who found it “most difficult to adjust their project and training plan”. This includes final-year students and those with support needs, such as disabled students or those with caring responsibilities.

In the letter, published on 16 November, over 770 members of Peer Review Colleges or Advisory Councils of UKRI research councils, as well as staff responsible for PhD programmes and supervisors of UKRI-funded research students, urge UKRI to “revisit this decision with the view to providing greater support to emerging researchers who have had their research disrupted”.

The letter says this extra support is “essential for the future of these researchers” and would “protect the research and teaching”.

“UKRI argues it is committed to ‘developing people and skills’ and ‘supporting a healthy research and innovation culture’,” it says. “We strongly urge that UKRI upholds these principles through action by supporting and nurturing our emerging research community.”

The signatories added that they were “gravely concerned” by UKRI’s review of extensions for students affected by Covid-19, which informed the funder’s guidance and concluded that many of the facilities used by postgraduate researchers had started to reopen.

The signatories claim the review “failed to seriously engage with appropriate stakeholders, instead relying on consultation with managers and administrators”, who are typically “not on the frontline of research”.

“At all stages, doctoral research has suffered sustained disruption, from preparation to data collection and analysis to writing up,” they write, adding that the review provides “no serious solution to any of these problems”.

‘Out of touch’

UKRI’s insistence that students redesign their PhDs without additional time was “out of touch with research practices, and indicates willingness to let research quality suffer”, according to Pandemic PGRs, a Twitter community for postgraduate researchers during Covid-19.

“Postgraduate researchers have been expected to continue working on their projects throughout the pandemic despite reduced access to libraries, labs, archives, fieldwork and data collection opportunities, as well as increased caring responsibilities and increased mental health strain,” the community said in a statement.

“There has been no equivalent of a furlough scheme and now no option of funded extensions for most post-graduate researchers, despite the profound impact of the pandemic.”

As a result, they added, many doctoral students would not be able to complete their PhDs due to inadequate funding. “This will exacerbate existing inequalities in academia, as well as wasting public funds put towards these uncompleted PhDs,” the group said.

‘Flexible funding’

A UKRI spokesperson told Research Professional News: “In creating our guidance, we have consulted widely, rightly with representative student groups but also with other stakeholders and leaders. We considered all views and listened to concerns from the sector and have advocated for additional financial support for those who need it the most.”

“We have now provided £19m new funding to support those who cannot mitigate, bringing the total UKRI Covid-19 response for doctoral students to over £60m to date” they said, highlighting that the guidance does not limit funding to any one group of students but “provides the flexibility for research organisations to make the decision on where the need is greatest”.

“We empathise with students and their teams who are facing uncertainty caused by the pandemic,” they said, “and our policy package has continued to ensure that UKRI students continue to be paid their stipends throughout the ongoing uncertainty.”