UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is facing a storm of criticism over its decision not to allow further extensions of time or funding to PhD students whose research has been affected by Covid-19.
The agency oversees more than £6bn of spending every year and is the biggest funder of PhDs in the country, supporting around a quarter of the UK’s circa 100,000 doctoral students.
In an open letter* published yesterday (November 16), almost 800 researchers pronounced themselves ‘gravely concerned that the review has failed all PhD students’.
Signatories include members of UKRI’s research councils, staff responsible for doctoral research programmes, key research partners, and supervisors on UKRI-funded research projects.
‘At all stages [of the pandemic], doctoral research has suffered sustained disruption, from preparation to data collection and analysis to writing up,’ say the signees.
‘The review provides no serious solution to any of these problems, instead insisting that adjustment and mitigation will be sufficient for students to complete their research (within time limits in most cases) and enable them to produce significant and original contributions to knowledge. We know from our extensive experience that it will not.’
Signatories claim that there will be long-term damage to research in the UK, adding that ‘research and teaching that will be much needed as the United Kingdom and the world recovers from this crisis’.
“PhD students have already faced huge difficulties continuing their research during the global pandemic,” said the general secretary of the University and College Union, Jo Grady.
UKRI’s own review found that more than three-quarters of doctoral students not in their final year require an extension to their work.
“UKRI should be pulling out all the stops to support them, not asking them to make sure their projects are finished within their funded period,” added Grady.
UKRI’s shoulders are much broader than the students impacted by Covid-19, so it should be offering to extend funding periods for everyone affected – Jo Grady, UCU
Ahead of taking up the post of UKRI chief executive in June, Dame Ottoline Leyser said: “I look forward to working with the UKRI team to ensure that the UK’s superb research and innovation system continues to work for everyone, by (…) developing innovative funding models.”
Doctoral students will be hoping that such an initiative comes sooner rather than later.
“UKRI has a budget of over £6bn, and its shoulders are much broader than the students who have been impacted by Covid-19, so it should be offering to extend funding periods for every student affected,” said Grady.
“Its refusal to do so will hit those from less affluent backgrounds hardest and could lead to more academics from marginalised groups leaving the sector.”
* The open letter in full:
Dear Professor Rory Duncan, Sir John Kingman, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser and the chairs of the Research Councils,
We, the undersigned, are members of Peer Review Colleges or Advisory Councils of UK Research and Innovation research councils, staff responsible for PhD programmes in our departments, faculties or doctoral colleges and/or supervisors of UKRI-funded research students. We have seen up close both the astounding contributions our PhD researchers make to the world-leading and community-transforming research that takes place across the UK, and the serious and sustained impact that COVID-19 has had on these researchers and their projects.
We welcomed UKRI’s early response to the COVID-19 crisis, which focused on those students close to submission with support provided to some 92% of those in their final year. We also welcomed UKRI’s commitment to reviewing that support “to ensure that any further impacts to doctoral training were taken into account,” knowing that those in the middle years of their research were likely more seriously impacted than those early on in their research, when adjustments could perhaps be made more easily, and those whose primary data gathering had been completed or was near completion.
We are, however, gravely concerned that the review released on 11 November has failed all PhD students, but particularly this cohort. The report itself notes that 77% of those not in the final year are in need of an extension.
We also note that the review failed to seriously engage with appropriate stakeholders, instead relying on consultation with managers and administrators who are hardworking and committed colleagues but are typically not on the frontline of research or research supervision. A stakeholder consultation involving just 58 students (of over 25,000 UKRI funded and more than 100,000 PhD students in the UK) is clearly inadequate. Speaking to just two researchers with chronic illness is derisory. Supervisors, PRC members, and Advisory Network members have not been consulted.
At all stages, doctoral research has suffered sustained disruption, from preparation to data collection and analysis to writing up. Supervisors have been aware of this and working to support PhD researchers for many months: UKRI is now fully aware also. However, the review provides no serious solution to any of these problems, instead insisting that adjustment and mitigation will be sufficient for students to complete their research (within time limits in most cases) and enable them to produce significant and original contributions to knowledge. We know from our extensive experience that it will not.
The recommendations also place additional burdens on those most affected to document their disruption, including disabled students, students with caring responsibilities and those with other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Wider inequalities will become entrenched because extended time frames are only available to those with access to independent financial resources. Internationally collaborative research, particularly North-South collaboration, is highly valued by URKI, and yet these projects that take time to develop and sustain will be disproportionately affected.
Additional burdens will also be placed upon colleagues responsible for supervising students. Each student-supervisor team will need to arrive at individualised adjustments of their research projects in order to ensure timely completion. At a time when staff workloads have already increased substantially, with subsequent impacts on staff mental and physical health, expecting such level of extra work from colleagues also worries us deeply.
We urge that UKRI revisit this decision with the view to providing greater support to emerging researchers who have had their research disrupted. Not only is this essential for the future of these researchers as colleagues, but will also protect the research and teaching that will be much needed as the United Kingdom and the world recovers from this crisis.
UKRI argues it is committed to “developing people and skills” and “supporting a healthy research and innovation culture.” We strongly urge that UKRI upholds these principles through action by supporting and nurturing our emerging research community.
The list of signatories can be found here.