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UKRI defends limited support for PhD students during pandemic


Chief executive says “difficult financial year” means funder is unable to cover £200 million cost

The chief executive of the national research agency UK Research and Innovation has defended the funder’s decision not to offer blanket extensions for PhD students during the pandemic.

Ottoline Leyser was responding to a strongly worded report from the campaign group Pandemic PGRs, which accused the funder of “cherry-picking” evidence and ignoring the experiences of the postgraduate community in its grant-extension policies during the pandemic.

The report had called on UKRI to immediately provide six-month funded extensions for all postgraduate students, with additional time to be made available for disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent researchers, as well as those with caring responsibilities and others facing additional hardship.

But in her 19 April response, Leyser said UKRI was “preparing for a difficult financial year ahead” and still negotiating its 2021-22 settlement with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, meaning it is not in a position to cover the estimated £200 million cost of the full extensions.

“We are starting the year with unusually high levels of committed funding due to delays to projects caused by the pandemic and new projects aimed at addressing the pandemic,” she said.

“We will work to sustain as much capability and capacity as we can across the research and innovation system and to champion its extraordinary potential to fuel the post-pandemic recovery, building a greener and more inclusive knowledge economy.”

Science minister Amanda Solloway also defended UKRI’s response in her 22 April letter to the group, which was responding to their 8 February letter on the issue of support.

Solloway sincerely apologised for the delayed response yet declined to meet with the group to discuss matters further. “Unfortunately, due to existing diary commitments I am unable to attend a meeting at this time,” she said. But she added she “will continue to monitor how the pandemic is affecting UKRI-funded PhD students and the wider research system”.

Case-by-case applications for support

The campaign group’s original report had also called for an end to the requirements for case-by-case applications for Covid-19 support, which “create additional barriers for PhD students in terms of additional workload”.

Responding to the demand, Leyser said that “as we cannot provide blanket extensions it is necessary to have some process to ensure that the funding gets to those who need it most”.

“These processes are also necessary for UKRI to meet the obligations on us when spending public money,” she added.

In addition, the campaign group’s report had called on UKRI to make a “meaningful commitment, and develop an action plan, to involve PhD researchers in developing all policy that affects them”.

Leyser admitted that engagement over the past year “was sometimes more limited than we would have liked”.

However, she said: “We are committed to listening to our research and innovation communities. Many of our research councils already regularly speak to groups of students about the issues that are impacting them. We have taken time to reflect upon how we engage and consult with the postgraduate research population, not just about the impacts of Covid-19, but on other issues that matter to them, too.”

To date, UKRI has allocated more than £60 million to support extensions for final-year students, and for students who found it “most difficult to adjust their project and training plan”. It has provided more than 5,000 extensions to PhD students in 2020.

In a letter accompanying her response to the report, Leyser insisted the funder took postgraduates’ concerns seriously.

“That we have not adopted all the solutions you propose does not mean that we are not listening or do not care. The opposite is true,” she said.

“I am focused on fostering a research and innovation system to which everyone has the opportunity to contribute and from which everyone can benefit. This requires that the diverse contributions of everyone in the system are recognised and valued. Postgraduate researchers are no exception. You are a crucial part of the system now and for the future.”

‘Little reassurance’ from UKRI

In its 20 April response, Pandemic PGRs group said it was “disappointing” that UKRI “has not listened” to the community.

“We are still struggling to complete our research during a global pandemic. We are still being left without the support we need. UKRI’s response offers little reassurance that this will improve,” the group said.

“We know PhD researchers who have still not received notification of whether or not they will be awarded an extension, who are unable to get extensions of a duration long enough to provide practical help, or who have been unable to ‘prove’ to their institutions that their hardship has been bad enough to warrant adequate support, as UKRI requires.”

They warned of a danger that the most vulnerable PGRs and those from marginalised groups, are “slipping through the cracks and finding that they have run out of options for funded extensions, leaves of absence and medical leave”.

“While UKRI should strive for research excellence, part of research excellence is supporting the most vulnerable members of the academic community and ensuring a level playing field is given, which it currently is not,” Pandemic PGRs said.

“Fundamentally, UKRI needs to recognise that what it does will help set the tone for leadership elsewhere. It has a moral and normative role to play in making sure PGRs get the right support, which is still absent in terms of university sector-wide guidance and best practice.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight