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PSA Early Career Network Committee: a statement on UKRI funding for PhDs facing disruption due to Covid-19
The UKRI is responsible for funding ~25% of the total doctoral population, including many researchers in Politics and – by extension - PSA ECN members. Moreover, its policy decisions provide a template for the response by other funding agencies and universities. In the early days of the pandemic, the UKRI took a laudable decision to support ‘final year’ students (end dates between 1 March 2020 and 31 March 2021), by offering up to 6-month funding extensions. However, the UKRI has stated that, besides a small minority of exceptional cases, extra time and money will not be granted, and has maintained this position in an open letter of 4 December 2020.
Things seemed hopeful that the UKRI would fill the gap for non-final year students, who were invited to fill out a survey and take part in qualitative focus groups to gauge their support needs. This survey found that 77% of non-final year doctoral researchers indicated a need for extension: largely due to ‘lack of access to facilities and resources’ and ‘disruption to data collection/fieldwork’. The NatCen report from its qualitative research recommends ‘a base level of financial support… regardless of year group’. However, the UKRI has stated that, besides a small minority of exceptional cases, extra time and money will not be granted.
The apparent rationale is that many research projects could resume as normal after the end of lockdown in June, and, combined with evidence that researchers were already adjusting their plans, the June surveys could be deemed outdated. In fact, the recent second lockdown, and tough restrictions under the Tier system - an eventuality that NatCen explicitly advised UKRI to plan for - the support needs of PGRs would appear just as high as ever. Furthermore, for the many researchers in Politics conducting data collection and fieldwork overseas, their needs do not map onto the domestic situation but the broader international picture, including restrictions on travel and gatherings. For these reasons and more, the UKRI’s depiction greatly downplays the barriers to completion for PGRs, including PGRs in Politics.
As things stand, many PGRs will therefore face the dreadful choice between an extended unfunded period and quitting their PhDs entirely: the consequent financial hardship and emotional strain could be severe. The burden will fall on those with less of a savings cushion and greater family/caring responsibilities. These outcomes would be bad for diversity in UK HE, and for the progression of PGRs into the teaching and research roles they have been prepared for.
Noting the evident discontent among our members, PGR groups, staff and administrators, we therefore call on UKRI to urgently re-consider its approach to non-final year PGRs.