Covid pandemic: more than half of PGRs have money worries, Vitae survey finds

Fifty-one per cent of postgraduate researchers thought funders had not provided them with clear support during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic

More than half of postgraduate researchers have money worries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic – and the same proportion thinks their funder did not do all it could to support them during the second wave – according to a new survey published today (Friday 6 August).

The survey by Vitae, part of the Careers Research & Advisory Centre, investigated the impact of the second Covid wave on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in February and March 2021.

Vitae conducted two surveys with 1,347 researchers in universities and research institutes in the UK that participated in like-for-like polls during the first and second pandemic waves.

The survey suggests that 55% of PGRs are worried about the amount of money coming in. The same proportion do not believe that their funder had done all that it could to support them – and this opinion has strengthened since the first wave, Vitae found. Fifty-one per cent of PGRs thought funders had not provided clear support – in contrast, more senior staff felt that funders had provided clear support in the second wave than in the first, up from 33% to 45%.

PGRs report an average of 16 hours less per week on workplace-based research compared to pre-Covid times – compared to 10 hours less for research staff and four hours less for academic staff. Nearly three-quarters (73%) were worried about missing work.

Twenty-four per cent of researchers predicted “a very negative impact of Covid-19 on their career prospects” – but this figure was higher, 34%, for PGRs.

The community has responded superbly, but at great personal cost to many, who have been working under very difficult circumstances
– Prof Ottoline Leyser, UKRI

The Vitae survey follows several reports that warn that PGRs had been severely affected by the pandemic. In June of this year, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) observed that PGRs experienced “unprecedentedly high levels of stress” during the pandemic. The HE quality watchdog said, “there were neither ‘quick fixes’ nor ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions” for PGRs during the pandemic, with those currently approaching their submission deadlines most adversely affected.

The largest higher education trade union – University and College Union (UCU) – said universities must treat PGRs as staff because they produce research and teach undergraduates but do not receive the protections of contracted employees. UCU wants PGRs to access the benefits of contracted staff, including pensions, sick leave, parental leave, contract working hours and regular pay.

In May, UKRI defended its decision not to offer automatic six-month funded extensions to PGRs during the pandemic, arguing it faces “a difficult financial year ahead” and cannot stump up the estimated “£200 million” required.

The Vitae survey found that almost half of the researchers surveyed had returned to pre-Covid working hours, and over 80% agreed that Covid-19 restrictions had forced them to change the way they go about their research. More than half (76%) reported poor wellbeing and mental health during the second wave, with 11% of researchers experiencing bullying and harassment.

Commenting on the Vitae survey, UKRI chief executive Prof Ottoline Leyser said the pandemic had created “unprecedented challenges”.

“The community has responded superbly, but at great personal cost to many, who have been working under very difficult circumstances,” Prof Leyser said. “This is invaluable as we continue to work to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and to address the inequalities in the system, which the pandemic has amplified.”

She vowed to press ahead with the UKRI project to improve research culture in the wake of the survey.

Read more: UKRI publishes new open access policy for publicly-funded research

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