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Support for research students will be fair and flexible

UKRI will give its doctoral candidates the time and support they need, says Rory Duncan

It is difficult to think of a more challenging time for higher education and those involved in research and innovation. Whether you are managing a doctoral training centre, organising fieldwork or working in a lab, these are highly uncertain times. All of us are having to adapt as we adjust to social distancing, new ways of working and pondering what the future holds.

Many people, including doctoral students supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), are deeply concerned about how and when clarity will emerge. The pressures of adjusting personal lives to restrictions and new responsibilities can compound these concerns.

We have been working as quickly as we can within our remit, to provide reassurance and support to these students, understand their challenges, identify possible solutions and work through the technical detail to address the issues in order of urgency.

With about 100,000 students, the UK is one of the largest providers of doctoral training in the world. In 2018-19, UKRI alone invested over £400 million in doctoral programmes.

At any one time we are supporting about 20,000 doctoral candidates across the full breadth of disciplines and research types. This is a major investment representing a clear commitment and a determination that the experts of tomorrow can be nurtured in the UK.

In developing policies and support for students at this time, we have adopted some guiding principles.

We want doctoral students to be able to complete their studies, and to be funded to do so. We aim to provide fair treatment, ensuring that personal circumstances are taken into account and that decisions are made on a generous basis with as little paperwork as possible.

Continued funding

We are clear that students will not have to make up any lost time by working unreasonable hours, or every weekend and holiday. We will continue to work with doctoral training partners and with research organisations to ensure that those who are particularly vulnerable, including people with disabilities, underlying health conditions or caring responsibilities, are not disadvantaged.

Our first step was to make sure that all doctoral students funded by UKRI continue to be paid their stipend. This means that studies have not been suspended; wherever feasible, research students should be doing some work towards their degree.

Inevitably, however, many cannot continue their work in the way they would like—perhaps because a lab or library is closed, fieldwork can’t continue, or school and nursery closures have created additional caring duties.

Students, and supervisors, need time to adapt to this disruption. Open communication between students, supervisors, universities and funders, working together to minimise the impact on mental health and wellbeing, is vital.

At Easter, UKRI and the government announced support measures for PhD students in their final funded year who have not yet submitted their thesis. Money has been released to extend the funding of stipends and fees for these students by six months. We expect this will allow most to complete their studies; those who cannot should continue to talk with programme directors.

To be clear, this intervention does not mean that students who are not in the final year of their programmes cannot request an extension. If disruption due to Covid-19 makes extra time essential, then a request should be made to the appropriate programme manager.

Under review

We will work with you to understand the implications and magnitude of this disruption. Each student and their project will be affected differently, whether due to personal circumstances or the nature of their research. Some, fortunately, may still be able to complete their projects in time; others will have lost critical time-dependent aspects of their work that will delay their projects longer than the shutdown.

We know that programme directors and supervisors are better placed than us to understand the impacts of Covid-19 on each project and the extent to which they can be mitigated. As a funder, it is inappropriate for UKRI to seek to set a universal length of extension that would suit every research student at every stage of their degree.

UKRI is providing detailed guidance to universities and programme managers, appreciating that as the situation develops we will need to refine and review further. We are keeping this policy change under review to reflect further developments and the changing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, I am keen to keep hearing your feedback on how we are doing. When the immediate crisis passes—which it will—we will need our doctoral students more than ever.

Rory Duncan is director of talent and skills at UK Research and Innovation

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight