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UKRI announces £11m in further support to PhDs

Extra funding to go to English universities via Research England following student complaints

The UK’s national research funder has said it will provide further support to doctoral students, with £11 million to be distributed to English universities, following criticism that it had not done enough to help students who had suffered pandemic-related disruption.

UK Research and Innovation announced the extra money on 22 February, which comes on top of some £60m it announced in 2020 to support PhD students, and will be made available through the UKRI council, Research England. 

PhD students not funded by UKRI will also be eligible for support from the £11m block grant.

“PhD students face huge challenges in both their work and personal circumstances,” said UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser, adding that “the measures announced today will help those most affected by this crisis, including students with caring responsibilities”.

The funder said it had also “freed up £7m to enable additional extensions to students earlier in their studies, based on need”, from its first tranche of funding in April 2020, which provided £44m in urgent support to UKRI-funded students in their final year of studies.

In November 2020, another £19.1m was allocated to research organisations to support PhD students in greatest need.

Previous complaints

The recent move to provide more funds follows a 10 February complaint by a group of PhD students, who accused UKRI of “cherry-picking” evidence and ignoring their own experiences in its grant-extension policies during the pandemic.

They alleged that that the funder “broadly ignored” the recommendations from a report it commissioned on how to support students, such as “to improve the quality and quantity of support offered, including offering a base level of financial support to all UKRI-funded doctoral students”.

Following the complaints, a spokesman for UKRI told Research Fortnight that the funder took students’ concerns “seriously”, and would “review the report and respond as we continue to develop our policy on studentships”.

‘Unrealistic demands’

In a 22 February open letter to doctoral students, Leyser echoed the message of support, but said it was unrealistic for UKRI—which funds 20-25 per cent of UK-based doctoral students—to provide paid extensions to all of them.

“For UKRI alone it would likely cost approximately £200m of public money to provide blanket six-month extensions,” she said, adding that research organisations’ overheads would add further costs.

“If applied across all 100,000 doctoral students, the cost for the sector would be well in excess of £1 billion,” she said.

Leyser defended UKRI’s position, saying that the funder currently has “no reserves we can spend”, as it is unable to carry money over from one year to the next.

“We recognise the attraction of a simple blanket allocation, which would reduce workload and burden on both students and those administering the extensions,” said Leyser. “But on the other hand, it commits funds that may be more urgently needed somewhere else in the system.”

‘Too little, too late’

In a statement, the ‘Pandemic PGRs’ collective of PhD researchers behind the initial complaints to UKRI said they considered the 22 February statements by Ottoline Leyser to be “an initial indirect reply” to their demands.

While the group welcomed UKRI’s additional flexibility to universities allowing students further extensions of its first tranche of funding in April 2020, they said that the funder’s support overall “still falls well short of what is needed, both for UKRI-funded researchers and for those funded from other sources or self-funding”.

“It is disappointing that this funding is only coming now, almost a year into the UK’s crisis, and after repeated statements that UKRI could provide or leverage nothing for those researchers not funded by UKRI,” they said.

The students want the money to be explicitly ringfenced to support PhD students and say the money should not serve as a proxy for institutional support for mental health and other necessary services.

They also said that UKRI’s decision to cap the extensions provided in November at three months, rather than the initial six awarded to some students in April, is “unhelpful”.

A spokesperson for the group told Research Professional News: “We welcome UKRI’s willingness to introduce greater flexibility into the pandemic support system for PGRs, the provision of a small amount of funding to support non-UKRI funded PGRs, and the possibility of further review.

“Many PGRs, however, are left with questions and see this update as too little and too late. UKRI acknowledge their shortcomings in engaging with PGRs and providing transparency around decision-making but we need to see actions rather than words here.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight