Coronavirus: UK PhD students urge automatic funding extensions

Funding bodies should reconsider case-by-case assessments to minimise bureaucracy and student distress, say researchers

April 3, 2020
Shut gate
Source: iStock

Thousands of PhD students have called for a blanket extension to their scholarships and funding to reflect the “severe impact” to their research caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter sent to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which has been signed by more than 3,000 postgraduate research students, the £7 billion-a-year research funding body is asked to “guarantee an automatic funding extension for all postgraduate students (both master’s and PhD level) for as long as the crisis and university closures continue”.

It calls on UKRI to allow its research councils to extend automatically, a shift from the current policy, which requires them to have “sufficient information/evidence to justify any extension”. Adopting a “case-by-case consultation approach” would produce a huge amount of casework that funding bodies could not process and would also “leave the students in a protracted state of uncertainty that would be even more detrimental to their mental health”, the letter argues.

The extensions should apply not just to those “physically prevented from working” by laboratory shutdowns or interruptions to fieldwork, but also to those with childcare commitments or those who have had to return home to their families, the letter says. “Many have stated that the severity of the crisis is significantly affecting their physical and mental health, preventing them from concentrating on their intellectually demanding research,” it adds.

In a statement, UKRI said, “Student health and well-being should be the priority during this unprecedented and uncertain time.”

However, extensions should initially be funded by “grant underspends” of doctoral training partnerships while UKRI worked to understand the “impact of these extensions, including the costs associated…in terms of stipends and research costs”, it added.

In a separate letter signed by 216 university lecturers calling for the extension of PhD funding, UKRI and charities that support PhD students are urged to be “fair and caring, given the unprecedented circumstances”.

“In this time of crisis, students and academics should be allowed to prioritise their personal, physical, and mental well-being over their academic work,” the letter states.

That letter’s organiser, Gavin Maclean, lecturer in sociology at Edinburgh Napier University, told Times Higher Education that he was concerned by reports that some institutions were relaxing deadlines for funded PhD students but making no commitment to extend funding. “With laboratories and campuses closing, and many PhD students having to take on childcare, we are seeing a lot of lost time,” Dr Maclean said.

David Bogle, pro vice-provost at UCL’s Doctoral School, which has about 5,000 PhD students, said he hoped that most PhD students would be able to remain productive during the interruption. “It is a moment to reflect upon where you are going and consider whether your objectives are right – something that often only occurs at the end,” he said.

UCL’s laboratory shutdown, however, was likely to interrupt the work of about 700 PhD students doing practical experiments. Extending funding would cost about £1.5 million a month at UCL and £30 million nationally, given that UCL accounts for about 5 per cent of funded PhDs, Professor Bogle estimated.

“Given the huge amounts being spent in this crisis, I don’t think this is too much to ask,” he said.

Owen Gower, director of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said it was unlikely that UKRI would shift from its position of considering extensions case by case.

He added, however, that UKRI would also need to think longer term about the implications of the Covid-19 crisis, in particular the “recruitment of international candidates, the mobility of doctoral researchers in undertaking fieldwork and exchange opportunities and the pipeline into postgraduate study given the likely disruption to undergraduate assessments”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

We are grappling with this at my own institution too. There is a particular issue with students funded through DTPs (Doctoral Training Partnerships) or CDT (Centres for Doctoral Training). In these there is a block grant to a group of institutions for a fixed period of time, covering multiple studentships. If there were to be any underspend in these programmes it wouldn't be evident until the end of the funding period, yet many students already studying within them will finish before this programme level end date. UKRI urgently needs to instruct DTP/CDT lead organisations on how to gain costed extensions for students before the end of their individual PhD programmes when these substantially pre-date the end of the DTP/CDT programme.