Postgraduate research (PGR) students have experienced “unprecedentedly high levels of stress” during the pandemic, the Quality Assurance Agency has observed in a new report.
The HE quality watchdog said “there were neither ‘quick fixes’ nor ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions” for PGR students during the pandemic, with those currently approaching their submission deadlines most adversely affected.
“Those writing up their thesis in 2020 were less impacted than those in the middle of their research and, as the pandemic continued, providers became increasingly aware of the extremely difficult circumstances in which many students were attempting to continue their research,” the watchdog found.
The factors for this were “highly individual and complex combinations”, the report concluded, such as a lack of study space and specialist equipment, inability to conduct fieldwork, technical problems, caring responsibilities, bereavement, financial difficulties and isolation.
Universities were confident they had supported PGR students to achieve their doctoral potential, even if research “had been subject to substantial adjustment because of Covid-19”. By encouraging candidates to consider alternative methods of research, universities had tried to ensure disruption did not undermine theses. There were more opportunities for PGR students in the latter stages of their programmes to gain a teaching qualification and some experience of teaching students because demand for Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) increased.
QAA warned universities to ensure supervisors received appropriate training to watch for signs of worsening mental health, after “an upsurge in student anxiety”. It said one provider that supported the report had shared PGR survey data that showed “considerable variability in the relationship between supervisors and supervisees”. The survey findings likely reflected trends across the sector, the report said – adding that “some supervisors are empathetic and regard an element of pastoral care as part of their role, but this is not true in all cases”. The report said there was a perception the pandemic “has brought to light issues in supervision that might otherwise have gone unnoticed”.