New deal for postgraduate researchers needs a joint effort from all involved, says Rory Duncan
Ottoline Leyser’s foreword to UK Research and Innovation’s latest update on its long-awaited new deal for postgraduate research starts in inspirational voice: “I loved my PhD years.”
My own PhD experience was similar to that of UKRI’s chief executive—I loved it and lived it to the full. The second time around, that is.
My first experience was with an ill-equipped supervisor who lacked the skills to develop a student, and who, in my eyes at least, had power over my life and future. It was a horrible experience, personally and professionally. It took years, determination and good fortune to find my way back to a research career.
UKRI’s new document, published on 26 September, responds to its earlier call for input on the new deal. Leyser rightly says that those inputs paint a similarly mixed picture to her and my postgraduate experiences, with successes to celebrate and significant challenges for many working in a complex system.
The report is a milestone because it creates an opportunity for everyone involved in funding and delivering doctoral training to come together and seek solutions to the challenges it reveals. We cannot wait for the government to lead; it lacks the levers to change the system.
There is no question that the experience of publicly funded postgraduate researchers has been enhanced over the decades. The research councils have listened to concerns and given deep thought to making doctoral training better.
One change has been to create a cohort approach that improves peer support. Another is a focus on increasing diversity and inclusion.
There has been a move away from seeing a PhD as an academic apprenticeship, to stressing that doctoral graduates should be able to enjoy flexible, dynamic roles in whatever career they choose. This is very different to my first, isolating experience, although there remains more to do.
Doctoral training is a success story for the UK: we remain towards the top, globally, in PhD training intensity, attracting researchers and collaborations from across the world.
Of the UK’s roughly 100,000 postgraduate researchers, about 20 per cent are publicly funded. This makes UKRI the largest single source of support for doctoral training, but not a majority funder.
Others are supported by university funds, industry, charity sponsorship and overseas administrations. The largest single group is self-funded.
Such a diverse system can bring resilience. Public funding reflects national priorities and future skill needs set out in successive strategies and delivery plans. But people must also be able to follow their own interests, by pursuing research goals in topics they’re passionate about.
Postgraduate researchers devote their own resources to benefit us all. They commit several years of their lives, often pay fees, and accept that part of the compensation comes in the form of training and development, with a stipend. Even after a recent substantial increase, the UKRI stipend remains below the take-home of the real Living Wage. This is just one reason why universities can find it challenging to recruit talented, diverse people to doctoral training programmes.
The road ahead
The new deal for postgraduate researchers was trailed in 2020’s R&D Roadmap, published before the full shock of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The timing is important: there were concerns in government and elsewhere about the postgraduate research experience even before the pandemic exposed longstanding frailties and flaws in our system that had often profound impacts on the lives of postgraduate researchers.
The latest report and accompanying data release add valuable detail to this picture, helping to reveal where to expect differences of opinion and which trade-offs to debate. With most future funding already committed, for example, raising stipends will need savings elsewhere.
As a sector, those who carry out and support research must learn from what works and, importantly, from when things go wrong. It is positive that funders, various arms of government, postgraduate researchers and providers are coming together in a forum convened—not led—by UKRI. Both the R&D Roadmap and 2021’s R&D People and Culture Strategy make clear that, while UKRI can steer the sector, through, for example, setting minimum stipends or parental leave policies, there are limits to what it can do and say.
Universities, sponsors and others can make choices to support people differently, not just financially, but in the many ways highlighted in the report, and accept responsibility to co-create the ‘new deal’ we need. It’s time we stepped up.
Rory Duncan is pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Sheffield Hallam University.
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight