Anger as UKRI rules out blanket funding extension for PhDs

Extra funding will be prioritised for those in final year or those with ongoing support needs, with other students urged to adapt their projects to existing deadlines

November 12, 2020
hourglass and calendar, illustrating delays in decisions over research funding grants
Source: iStock

PhD students in the UK have reacted angrily after the country’s public research funder said that it would not be offering blanket funding extensions for doctoral projects.

Instead, UK Research and Innovation, which supports about a quarter of all doctoral students through its individual research councils, has asked PhD candidates to “speak to their supervisor about adjusting projects” so they can be completed on time.

“As a result of the pandemic, it is very unlikely that doctoral students will be able to fully replicate the originally proposed training experience,” a UKRI policy statement said.

“While this will be disappointing, the priority for students now is to adapt and adjust research projects to mitigate the delays caused by Covid-19. With support from their supervisor and organisation, they should seek to complete their research to a doctoral standard within their funding period.”

An extra £19 million will be made available to help students on a “needs priority basis”, starting with those now in their final year and unable to adapt projects or those with “ongoing support needs” such as those suffering from a long-term illness.

But the lack of wider support has prompted anger from the PhD community.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, said “it is quite incredible that they have decided to show no leniency in the middle of a global pandemic.

“UKRI should be giving certainty and stability to PhD students, who have already been at the sharp edge of many of the impacts of Covid-19, not asking them to adjust their projects at such short notice.”

Naima Harman, who is studying for a PhD in palaeoclimatology at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that the announcement would leave “thousands of PhD researchers with no additional support to mitigate against the disruption caused to research by Covid-19”.

She said that the decision had been made despite a UKRI survey finding that most PhD students outside their final year said that they would still need an average of five months’ extra time to mitigate against Covid-19 disruption.

“The formal advice we are now being given is to speak to our supervisors and redesign our research projects. For many disciplines and research projects, this is simply not feasible,” Ms Harman said.

“Research projects take months to develop and are designed around the highly specialised skills of the researcher. It is unacceptable to ask PhD researchers to change their research projects and methods midway through carrying out research.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said that UKRI “should be pulling out all the stops” to support PhD students, “not asking them to make sure their projects are finished within their funded period”.

“UKRI has a budget of £6 billion, and its shoulders are much broader than the students who have been impacted by Covid, so it should be offering to extend funding periods for every student affected.”

In April, during the UK’s first national lockdown, UKRI said that it would fund extensions of up to six months for PhD projects that were then in their final year. It also allowed grant holders “flexibility” in using underspends to extend deadlines for other doctoral students.

A report accompanying the latest announcement says it was estimated that 92 per cent of final-year students had asked for an extension and the average period requested was four-and-a-half months.

It adds that the five-month estimated funding extension required by non-final-year students – which would have cost about £80 million – was based on a survey in June, but access to research labs and workspaces had since improved. Research organisations “we spoke to believed that the progress made since June has decreased the volume and length of extensions required”, the report adds.

Rory Duncan, UKRI director of talent and skills, said: “Over the past few months, we’ve spoken to many students, grant holders and university leadership teams. We have heard just how difficult the pandemic has made life for many, but also how students and the facilities that they use are starting to adapt to life under a pandemic.

“We’re saying now that, if a student has not already had a conversation with their supervisor about the research they can realistically do within the time they have, they need to do so now. Altering the outputs of your work or changing the data you work with as a result of the pandemic does not diminish the standard of your doctoral education.”

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