Supporting students through the pandemic

As the pandemic continues, with prolonged uncertainty and disruption, there is an emerging parallel pandemic in deteriorating mental health. This is strongly evident in the research and innovation system, which at the best of times can be a stressful environment in which to work, especially for early career researchers. There are many things we can do as a community to support each other through this crisis. UKRI has a central role to play. We must target the limited funding we have available to stabilise the system as a whole and to reduce the inequalities across the system which have been amplified by the pandemic, and we must catalyse the changes needed to build a more collaborative and supportive system for everyone.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive

Working with our community to identify priorities

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked with the research and innovation community to understand the impacts across the system and to target support accordingly.

For PhD students, at the start of the first lockdown we quickly allocated up to £43 million to support extensions for those whose funding period was due to end before 31 March 2021.

At the time of this decision, most facilities and schools had closed at very short notice with no indication of when they might reopen, requiring immediate action to support this group of students.

To improve the evidence base for future decisions on student support, we undertook a review; the results of which were published on 11 November 2020. Additional evidence was gathered from the UKRI-funded SMARTEN survey and the Vitae Postgraduate Experience Survey.

We have used this general approach across the whole system. We are continuously engaging with the community as the situation evolves, with the aim of understanding how we can best deploy the available resources.

Targeting support

Over the summer many research facilities re-opened and remained open through the second lockdown, allowing significant amounts of research to resume.

However, different projects are being impacted very differently. Some work, such as field work, work involving face-to-face interviews or collaborations with museums, has been virtually impossible throughout, whereas some projects have been able to proceed with relatively little disruption.

Similarly, the very different personal circumstances of students mean that some have been impacted much more than others. For example, those with caring responsibilities have typically found it more difficult to progress their research.

As is the case nationally, the pandemic has amplified a range of inequalities across the research and innovation system and the doctoral student community is no exception.

This is true of the approximately 25% of doctoral students funded by UKRI and the 75% funded from other sources.

As the pandemic has continued, financial constraints have also increased due to the continuing need to provide additional support right across the system and to fund urgent research into the pandemic. Furthermore, budgetary uncertainty has increased.

Government funding operates on strict annual budgets. Any funds not spent in year cannot be carried over into future years. Any extensions for students with end dates after March 2021 would have to come from future budgets, which have not yet been confirmed. Our 2021/22 budget is likely to be extremely constrained because of the many existing commitments to ongoing research grants. Furthermore, the wider research funding system is under massive strain with major contractions in charity funding and university income from other sources.

We have to make the best use of the limited resources available to support the whole system through the pandemic, whether this is extensions for existing students, grant-funding that pays the salaries of postdoctoral researchers and technicians and the many staff who work with them, or keeping national infrastructure and facilities in operation.

Taking all these factors into consideration, we decided that it was inappropriate to allocate blanket extensions to all students because this would amplify inequalities across the student body, both within and between UKRI and non-UKRI funded students, and it would not make the best use of the limited resources available to support the whole research and innovation system through the pandemic.

Evidence from the review, in the context of these wider considerations, was used in making a case to allocate a further £19.1 million from the 2021/22 budget to research organisations to support students in the coming years. This phase two funding is open to most UKRI-funded students who started before 1 March 2020 and who were not covered by phase one.

To target students most in need research organisations are putting in place a system to identify and allocate funds to those students. While this has caused substantial additional work for many already hard-pressed people in research organisations, including the students most in need of extensions, and has extended further the period of uncertainty for students and their supervisory teams, this is unfortunately an inevitable consequence of the decision to target resources to reduce inequalities across the system and, these serious concerns notwithstanding, to make the best used of limited funds.

We are in constant dialogue with research organisations to understand the impact of this funding.

Providing further support to students

The lockdown in early 2021, with schools closed, ramped up even further the pressures on the system. We have been continuing to monitor the situation closely and maintain dialogue and engagement with our community as the pandemic and its impacts progress.

In February 2021, we announced that we were consulting grant holders on giving them greater flexibility to use funds currently allocated to training and development and for future recruitment to support extensions. In March we confirmed that we were giving them this flexibility and that we would extend eligibility criteria.

As well as financial support, we are considering the wider actions we can take to support the careers of those working across the system. The pandemic has amplified the extreme pressures and anxiety faced by many, caused by well-documented drivers that undermine a healthy research and innovation culture.

Beyond the understandable disappointment many doctoral students face in having to adapt their projects to respond to the pandemic, some are concerned that the compromises they will have to make to complete their doctoral training under the current constraints will make it more difficult for them to progress their careers because they will be less able to compete on the narrow range of criteria often used to evidence success. This highlights the challenge faced by everyone in the community to support wider recognition of diverse contributions and career paths. While this may not seem relevant to the current crisis, it is crucial in building the supportive and inclusive research environment needed for the wellbeing of everyone in the research and innovation system.

Programmes such as UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships already support applicants following a wide range of career paths. UKRI is also seeking to introduce a different approach to CVs, based on the Royal Society’s Résumé for Researchers, which allows researchers to reflect better their varied contributions to research and innovation, and the context in which they made them. These are issues that all of us in the sector will have to address as we move through the pandemic.

Last updated: 18 January 2024

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