Leyser: UKRI right to limit PhD funding support

The chief executive of UKRI said the organisation must “balance the needs of all people and parts of the research and innovation system”

UKRI has defended its decision not to offer every postgraduate research (PGR) student a six-month funded extension during the pandemic, arguing it faces “a difficult financial year ahead” and cannot stump up the estimated “£200 million” required.

UKRI is the largest single funder of PhDs in the UK, funding around a quarter of the UK’s circa 100,000 doctoral students

The chief executive of the national research funding agency was responding to complaints from the campaign group Pandemic PGRs.

Pandemic PGRs, formed last year in response to the UKRI response to Covid-19, argued there were “inconsistencies in, and ‘cherry picking’ of, research data commissioned by UKRI to establish guidelines for the policy response that ignores, or seeks to undermine, the actual on-the-ground experience of PGRs”.

The University and College Union has also articulated its opposition to the UKRI PhD policy.

‘Little flexibility in our budget’

In her response, UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser said the agency began the year “with unusually high levels of committed funding due to delays to projects caused by the pandemic and new projects aimed at addressing the pandemic”.

Leyser said her organisation would have “relatively little flexibility in our budget” and must be “careful to balance the needs of all people and parts of the research and innovation system”.

Pandemic PGRs called on UKRI to provide six-month funded extensions for all postgraduate students and additional support for disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent researchers, as well as those with caring responsibilities or additional hardships.

It said UKRI should end requirements for case-by-case applications for Covid-19 support that “create additional barriers for PhD students in terms of additional workload”. UKRI’s own review found that more than three-quarters of doctoral students not in their final year require an extension to their work.

Leyser responded that “as we cannot provide blanket extensions, it is necessary to have some process to ensure that the funding gets to those who need it most” – adding that UKRI had “to meet the obligations on us when spending public money.”

The UKRI chief executive said the agency sought to improve communication channels with postdoctoral students in the future.

UKRI seeks improved communication, chief says

Following consultation with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), UKRI decided to prioritise “the limited funding available for extensions to those students most in need, and for those who are either unable to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 by redesigning their project or where further mitigation is necessary”.

“The QAA specifies that while doctoral qualifications are awarded based on a systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge, quality, rather than quantity, of output is the key factor,” Leyser wrote – arguing that, although students experienced disruption, many could progress with modified submissions.

UKRI has allocated more than £60 million to support extensions for final-year PGRs and for those who could not modify their work during the pandemic. It provided more than 5,000 extensions to PhD students in 2020.

In an open letter published in November, 800 researchers pronounced themselves “gravely concerned that the review has failed all PhD students”. Signatories included members of UKRI’s research councils, staff responsible for doctoral research programmes, key research partners, and supervisors on UKRI-funded research projects.

The UKRI chief also said the agency sought “continuous improvement” in its communications strategy but refuted criticism of its communication with PGR students. Half of PGR emails to students were unopened, she replied, and the bulk of communication fell to grant holders, such as universities, to pass on to candidates. She argued her body had told research organisations to minimise the administrative burden on students where possible and review those at the limits of the new, funded sick leave on a case-by-case basis.

UKRI “recognise the need to consult students more widely”, Leyser concluded, noting that the diversity of PGR students and their position in the academic and student community meant they presently “lack sector-wide representation and oversight”. Although communication with postgraduates this year was “sometimes more limited than we would have liked”, Leyser told Pandemic PGRs her organisation was “considering the most appropriate mechanisms to involve a wide range of postgraduate research students” in future.

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