Viewpoint: Support for doctoral research students must go to those who need it most

Student with laptop

Chief Executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser writes an open letter on UKRI’s support for doctoral students.

It seems simultaneously inadequate and unnecessary to state that the COVID-19 pandemic has been, and continues to be, devastating. On top of the many challenges of coping with bereavement, lockdown and escalating mental health impacts, the economic statistics are stark. These translate into direct human cost with, for example, redundancies across the UK at record levels.

The research and innovation community is reeling from all these challenges, while working flat out to address the direct impacts of the pandemic. As we look to the future, it is clear that we have a leading role to play in the recovery, with research and innovation as a cornerstone of the government’s plan for environmentally sustainable economic growth that benefits everyone across the country. We must endeavour to navigate the current challenges, both individually and collectively, to stabilise the system through the crisis while ensuring that we address future needs.

Doctoral research students in the pandemic

The situation faced by doctoral research students is one example of the challenges faced by the research and innovation community. There are about 100,000 doctoral research students in the UK, of which only 20 to 25% are funded by UKRI at any one time.

There were many active debates before the pandemic about support for doctoral research students. Should they be employees or students? Are we training too many or too few?  What is the right level of financial support, both for the students and for the universities where they train?

The importance of these issues has been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic with university finances in shock and doctoral students often missing out on support mechanisms for undergraduate students and for employees. Compounding these problems, there is significant diversity in the support that students have.

Many students are self-funding or supported by minimal three-year stipends. Others have four-year stipends at a higher level, with a separate budget to support training activities. The norms and their impacts vary by discipline, funder, host institution and student personal circumstances. As a result, the impacts of the pandemic on students are similarly variable.

In this complex landscape, it is not surprising that there are differences in opinion about the most appropriate policies to support the doctoral student community through the pandemic. An option that has been widely advocated (most recently in a report by group PandemicPGR) is to provide full six-month extensions with stipends, fees and training support for all students.

It has been argued that this is the fair thing to do because UKRI provided up to six-month extensions of stipends and fees for UKRI-funded students who were nearing the end of their studentships early in the pandemic. Doctoral students would like to know why we have not followed this approach for students at earlier stages of the studies, instead asking universities to target funding to those students most in need.

In my blog in January, I set out some of the reasoning underlying UKRI’s response, which I will expand on here.

UKRI’s budget

As a publicly funded body, UKRI operates under financial rules that constrain not only the size of our budget, but the flexibilities we have within it. Of particular relevance, we have annual budgets and we cannot carry money over from one year to the next. We have no reserves that we can spend.

Most of our work involves committing funds into future years, which we do “at risk” and requires us to prioritise those commitments above any new spend. The pandemic has pushed grant costs that we were anticipating this year into next, and meanwhile we have committed significant funds to new work to address the pandemic.

We have, of course, been advocating for as much support for the system as possible.

When, in the coming weeks, UKRI receives its budget allocation for 2021/22, it may seem that our funds are vast, but the commitments we have already made mean the flexibility we have is likely to be relatively limited.

We have to make decisions about funding for student extensions in the context of this budget and the trade-offs it will cause. We need to balance the needs of everyone we fund as best we can.

Targeting support

For UKRI alone it would likely cost approximately £200 million of public money to provide blanket six-month extensions. Further costs would be incurred by research organisations through overheads. If applied across all 100,000 doctoral students the cost for the sector would be well in excess of £1 billion.

I know that all students could make excellent use of an additional six months funding, much to the benefit of research and innovation in the UK. But the need for extensions across the doctoral student community is not uniform. For example, on the one hand, students with caring responsibilities have been particularly badly affected. And, while no student has been unaffected by the pandemic, there are many for whom it will be possible to complete their projects on time with adjustments ranging from relatively small, to major but nonetheless achievable.

We recognise the attraction of a simple blanket allocation, which would reduce workload and burden on both students and those administering the extensions. But on the other hand, it commits funds that may be more urgently needed somewhere else in the system. We know from our engagement with the community that there are strong arguments for funding elsewhere. Our grants support post-doctoral researchers, technicians and the many staff with whom they work. We have a limited budget and we have to balance all their needs.

Providing support for students

To date, UKRI has committed £60 million to fund extensions for doctoral research students affected by the pandemic. Of this, £26 million is committed from next year’s budget, ahead of UKRI receiving its final allocation.

All of that £26 million can now be used for students with an end date after 31 March 2021. As of November 2020, we had allocated £19.1 million to these students but, as not all students in ‘phase one’ required a six-month extension, we are now able to use £7 million originally earmarked for them to support students earlier on in their studies.

In addition, we have written to training grant holders exploring options to give them greater flexibility in the ways that they use their grants. This will allow them to redeploy funds earmarked for training activities and, if absolutely necessary, to reduce future recruitment to pay for extensions for today’s students.

Reallocating funds like this is not straightforward, as training programmes are structured in a variety of different ways. There are difficult trade-offs that affect people now and long into the future, and any decisions are not made lightly. It will take time to explore the options, which is why we are now discussing with grant holders how best to offer that flexibility.

Furthermore, Research England will be delivering £11 million of block grant funding to English universities to help them support their postgraduate research communities, including students funded by institutions themselves and self-financed students.

Learning lessons

Since I began at UKRI I have been clear that we must engage with the broadest range of voices, including students, and we need to be more transparent about what we are doing before, during and after key decisions. This of course takes time, which is always a scarce resource and particularly so in a pandemic.

While we have been continually talking to grant holders and research organisations, and we have met with students and read their letters, emails and tweets, we have not always been able to engage in the way that we would like.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the research and innovation system has a crucial role to play in the recovery as we endeavour to build a vibrant and inclusive knowledge economy. It will be particularly important to engage deeply to understand how best we can do this. This will slow things down but will support high quality decision making.

Thank you

I am deeply grateful to the community for the extraordinary work of so many to support the system through the pandemic, including helping us to develop and implement our responses.

For everyone at universities and at UKRI it has been heart-breaking listening to the many compromises everyone is having to make, and the stressful and sometimes tragic circumstances under which people are working. This includes the many eloquent and passionate requests from students, student groups and those working to support them.

I really appreciate the time and care people have taken to explain their situations. We are trying to respond as best we can and we will continue to work with the whole community to mitigate the devastating impacts of the pandemic and to develop the strongest possible recovery from it.

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