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UKRI rejects push for automatic PhD grant extension

Funder says Covid-19 will delay some students, but ‘others will be able to finish on time’

UK Research and Innovation has sought to reassure PhD students about the support it is providing during the Covid-19 pandemic following a huge backlash from the postgraduate community.

But the funder has not agreed to give all PhDs automatic, funded six-month grant extensions, as demanded in an open letter signed by more than 3,000 PhD students and academics.

UKRI has already faced a huge backlash from the postgraduate community over its previous decision to only provide extra support to students whose PhDs are due to be completed by 31 March 2021.

Extensions for those whose end date is after 31 March 2021 are currently only being considered on a case-by-case basis.

In their letter, dated 14 May, the researchers called for an end for case-by-case applications for support. These, they said, “create additional barriers for PhD students in terms of additional workload and which, for registered disabled students or those with a past history of medical leave for long-term or chronic conditions, duplicates past certification requirements”.

Responding to the concerns on 23 June, Rory Duncan, UKRI’s director of talent and skills, said: “While we expect that Covid-19 will mean many students need an extension to complete their degree, others will be able to finish on time, even if this means adapting their planned project.”

He added, “As our funding comes from the public, we have to ensure that it is used for its originally intended purpose. Funding students who do not require financial support to finish their degree would be inappropriate and may diminish our ability to fund other things in the future including, for example, future PhD students.”

Duncan said the funder required written descriptions of the case for extensions “because we are obliged to account for the public money being spent, and we want to monitor the effects of the pandemic on the research and innovation community”.

He insisted that the funder was “committed to providing support for students who are disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent”.

“We believe that equality, diversity and inclusion are integral to excellence in research and innovation, and particularly during this pandemic, recognise that the people are the lifeblood to ensuring that the R&D system emerges from this current situation in the best possible health,” he said.

UKRI is already working with universities to investigate how the pandemic is impacting on different groups, said Duncan.