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UKRI’s coronavirus response leaves PhD students hanging

A lack of support and clarity is causing anxiety for doctoral candidates, says Ross Goldstone

In the past few weeks, UK Research and Innovation has announced its support to help PhD students funded by the agency cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. As things stand, UKRI has offered an optional funding extension of up to six months for all students in the final year of their studies.

This announcement was met with dismay by many students not in their final years, whose research is nevertheless facing severe disruption and delay.

Writing in Research Professional News earlier this week, Rory Duncan, director of talent and skills at UKRI, sought to clarify. Students not in their final year may be entitled to an extension, but they must request this from their institutions.

“It is inappropriate,” he wrote, “for UKRI to seek to set a universal length of extension that would suit every research student at every stage of their degree.”

But this vague announcement raises more questions than it answers for students, who are already experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. PhD students not covered by the existing UKRI policy are left wondering why they are not receiving the same certainty and support as their final-year colleagues.

It is true, as Duncan writes, that each student will be affected differently, but this does not justify giving some certainty and not others.

The fairer option seems to be to provide a basic level of support to all students, while allowing those more adversely affected to seek further support.

Wide impact

After the UKRI announcement, my colleagues and I set up an online survey of how Covid-19 is affecting PhD students. Of the 225 responses so far, almost all, whatever point they have reached in their PhDs, report an impact on their work.

Disruptions include having to assume caring responsibilities (27 per cent), losing time (71 per cent), mental health difficulties (54 per cent) and research restrictions (58 per cent).

Many respondents also felt the announced funding does not cover those impacted more strongly by the lockdown. As Duncan notes, some “will have lost critical time-dependent aspects of their work that will delay their projects longer than the shutdown”.

This will apply particularly to students whose projects depend on collecting data. Data collection is rarely done during the final stages of a PhD, meaning that the existing support will not cover these disruptions.

This is not to divide students into deserving and undeserving, but to point out that the existing UKRI guidance is more likely to exacerbate students’ stress than relieve it.

Many students are experiencing fundamental and unavoidable disruption to their research plans. This might be because the research has already begun, costs have been incurred for data collection, or students have spent the first year planning their research but are now unable to begin data collection.

Many are considering leaving their studies. In the words of one respondent to the survey: “I cannot afford to continue without funding.”

Denying all current PhD students basic support will not only damage the students themselves. In the long term, UK R&D and higher education will suffer.

Equal treatment

For these reasons, PhD students are urgently asking UKRI to clarify its position and commit to supporting all students. This would show a recognition, which many feel is currently lacking, that no student has been untouched by this crisis.

UKRI should provide all PhD students it funds with a blanket extension of a set duration. Those who can finish within their funded period would still be able to do so. But the majority of research students in the UK are facing considerable uncertainty and need to know they have financial and non-financial contingencies and buffers around their projects.

Along with committing to a basic extension for all who want it, UKRI should work with universities and programme managers to understand how this universal support can be provided.

The agency should also work with universities to suspend fees for students outside their funded period and those self-funding, and to enhance the pastoral and mental health support available. And it should conduct an equalities assessment to understand whether and how particular groups, such as those with underlying health conditions, are especially disadvantaged.

International and part-time PhD students must not be neglected. The former are concerned about their visa conditions; many of the latter are combining employment and study, and facing an especially severe blow from the current crisis.

Finally, UKRI needs to work with students themselves. Students are keen to help UKRI help them. The failure to do so up until now has left them feeling isolated and anxious.

Put simply, PhD students are asking for help and equal treatment. We have committed to our research; we are now asking the UKRI to support its researchers.

Ross Goldstone is a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, student representative at the Wales Doctoral Training Partnership and a member of the steering group reviewing the UK social science PhD at the Economic and Social Research Council

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight