Why are post-92 students excluded from so many postdoctoral schemes?

UK higher education says it wants diversity, but its treatment of early career researchers suggests otherwise, says Edda Nicolson

十二月 20, 2021
Why are post-92 students excluded from so many postdoctoral schemes?
Source: Getty (edited)

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the ending of the UK’s binary divide between universities and polytechnics. The idea was to ensure that both types of institution were guaranteed parity in quality, opportunity and funding. But my experience suggests that that aspiration remains far from being realised.

I came back to higher education after I’d had children, and I found a warm welcome at my local post-92. Juggling my essay deadlines alongside chickenpox and teething episodes was tough, but I was encouraged by lecturers who were supportive and empathetic. The course materials nurtured my curiosity and embedded a love of research that took me on to a PhD.

However, branching out into wider academic networks showed me that opportunities to advance are very limited if you are not a fully funded PhD student – the vast majority of whom are found at Russell Group universities.

In 2019, I took part in a training session run by Parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit and left brimming with ideas about how to influence policy with my research findings. They told me I could apply for a fellowship funded by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and spend three months learning how to write for policymakers. It wasn’t until I looked at the application process online that I learned it was open only to doctoral students funded by UK Research and Innovation. My university is not part of a UKRI Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), and although my tuition fees are sponsored, I am classed as self-funded and don’t receive a stipend.

I went on to learn that post-92s tend to be excluded from prestigious doctoral training programmes, so I was ineligible to apply for many early career researcher opportunities. I see things like the BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme, which is supposed to be “a nationwide search for game-changing academics that will resonate with a wide audience”, but actually only seems to find Russell Group researchers. Or the TV PhD scheme, which invited me to a full-day workshop before it became clear that only students funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council were allowed to apply for their training programme. Was I supposed to be grateful just to be able to listen to their expert talks and workshops?

Even research councils themselves put barriers in place for people like me who want to work in research. The Economic and Social Research Council stipulates not only that its postdoctoral fellowships must be conducted at a DTP university, but that applicants must have completed their PhDs at a DTP university as well. Why? The ESRC has provided no clear rationale when challenged on this and has recently signalled that it will review the rule, but it has intimated that DTP schemes offer more training and development for its doctoral candidates. Presumably that translates into “better” postdoctoral researchers? But what is the justification for summarily ignoring all the in-house training and development programmes run by non-DTP universities?

It stings to think that my research is somehow thought of as lesser because the tab for my tuition wasn’t picked up by a research council. This year, the ESRC conducted a review of social science PhD provision and concluded that there is some “evidence of a lack of diversity and unequal access”. With funding rules like those above, that is hardly a surprise. Amid evidence that these exclusionary practices don’t marry up with employers’ approach to graduate recruitment, funding bodies and postdoctoral schemes need to wake up to what students with non-traditional pathways into research can offer.

As many PhD students do, I’ve spent some time teaching undergraduates. I see a lot of students who remind me of myself. They manage to write about 6,000 words per semester, in accordance with Harvard referencing rules, while maintaining space in their heads for school runs and year-three English homework. The same goes for our postgraduates. I know more than one part-time doctoral researcher holding down a full-time job alongside caring commitments.

These amazingly adaptable, hard-working, inquisitive and dedicated people are a real asset to our university. When doctoral or postdoctoral funders turn away such people, they are not only depriving the academy of their talents. Worse than that, they are telling them that academic research isn’t for the likes of them.

In one of my classes this semester, a fantastic group of mature students, all working mothers like me, sat in the front row, listening hard, writing copious notes and asking searching questions. “I’d love to do what you do,” one of them said. “Tell me how I can get a PhD, too.”

In that moment, I wondered: should I tell her the truth? That she is so smart, curious and diligent that she would make a fantastic researcher? That her children will grow up watching her work her socks off, and then see her walk across the stage to receive her PhD, convinced that they can do that too some day?

And should I also tell her the other truths? That the fees are getting higher? That funding doors will slam in her face? That there will be very few opportunities for her once she finishes her PhD? That application forms will only ask her about her research after they have asked her what university she went to?

What should I tell her?

Edda Nicolson is a PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton working on early 20th-century trade union history.



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Reader's comments (4)

Yep. 'Excellence everywhere': a hollow mantra.
In some parts of our country, post-92's are fully involved in UKRI Doctoral Training Partnerships. The NINE (ESRC) and Northern Bridge (AHRC) Doctoral Training Partnerships involve all five universities in the North-East of England as well as both Queen's University and Ulster University in Northern Ireland.
Excellence is everywhere, but funded excellence is not. People need to move to where the money is and to remember that no matter how good their research is if the politics have not been done first, it is highly unlikely to get funded.
Diversity in research activity seems to die, if you are outside a Doctoral Training Partnership. Isn't this something the Office for Students should be investigating?