The aim of the Pandemic PGR campaign was to enable PGRs organise collectively to demand a better response to the pandemic. UKRI, the government and many institutions have let down PGRs, providing inadequate support, awful communication and a failure to show any leadership about providing support to researchers. As it is, the PGR sector is likely to become less diverse, with the pandemic exaggerating existing inequalities.

This is an overview of the campaign so far – we are determined to keep fighting for extra support so please join our campaign!

PGRs Open Letter to UKRI

The initial lockdown was understandably chaotic. None of the institutions or government bodies involved with research had factored in a pandemic and lockdown that suddenly prevented PGRs from accessing university buildings and doing fieldwork. Many expected the first lockdown to end quickly so things could get back to normal, a line the government talked up. However, as it became clear that researchers wouldn’t be getting back to university buildings any time soon, the lack of a coherent response towards PGRs became increasingly pressing.

In May 2020 we wrote to the UKRI to urge them to more to support PGR researchers during the pandemic. We asked them to urgently provide more guidance. While final years researchers got funding, others were left in the dark, with their research in disarray and without any clarity about future support. While UKRI does not control individual institution’s policies, it does have a huge influence over the actions that universities take. Good recommendations from UKRI would likely lead to adoption of good policies by universities. We urged them to take leadership and show other organisations and funders what is needed to support PGRs in COVID lockdown.

To understand how much researchers were affected we conducted a survey of our own. The results show that 93% PGRs had been detrimentally affected, 84% said it would be difficult or impossible to adjust their research, and 18% said they were considering leaving their research. Other findings included:

  • 81% reported experiencing stress
  • 76% reported facing lost time
  • 60% are facing mental health difficulties
  • 60% reported facing research restrictions (e.g. data collection)
  • 50% reported facing financial concerns
  • 50% reported facing a lack of resources
  • 33% reported facing a lack of training and skills development opportunities
  • 22% have assumed childcare or other caring responsibilities

UKRI showed early on that they were looking at case-by-case decisions on PGRs getting extensions and extra support. We argued that the pandemic was already creating great uncertainty and distress, and case-by-case decision making would make this worse. It also puts the burden of proof onto those already in distress. People struggling with mental or physical health issues at this time would have to “prove” that their research had been affected, when its pretty obvious in lockdown that everyone has been affected. PGRs also had to try to navigate bureaucratic systems that had been put together quickly by institutions without any guidance from government or UKRI.

In response to these issues, PGRs organised. Pandemic PGRs were one of many collectives that wrote letters based on different campaigns, but the message was broadly the same, that PGRs needed more support and funding, and that blanket extensions were the fairest, simplest and most sensible way to do support researchers. As part of this, Pandemic PGRs had regular open meetings with PGRs to share experiences, support each other and discuss ideas about how to gain support. Eventually UKRI responded to us by organising a meeting where PGRs were invited to talk about their experiences, and they also and commissioned a report to investigate the impact on the PGR community. While they were sympathetic, they didn’t offer any promises of extra support.

Disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PGRs wrote a separate letter to UKRI, highlighting that the specific way that COVID affected them. They called for clarity, targeted support, and blanket extensions for all researchers, and for an end to discriminatory practices.

Pandemic PGRs Response to UKRI

The response from UKRI was published on 11th Nov 2020, over six months since the pandemic started. This meant six months when most PGR researchers had no idea of what support they could expect. The response, when it eventually came, was shocking to the PGR community by its complete failure to address the needs of PG research.

Notably, the NatCen report that UKRI commissioned to investigate the impact of COVID on researchers had been released. The recommendations were positive. NatCen showed that burdensome application processes, inconsistent support, absent or unclear communication, confusing information about accessing on-site services such as labs, unequal impacts, and mental and physical health issues all affected PGRs during the COVID pandemic. They recommended some kind of blanket support for all researchers, standardised application processes, transparency around decision making, targeted support for certain students (e.g. those who are parents / carers, or who have a disability).

In the UKRI’s response, they rejected every recommendation of the NatCen. This was a report that they themselves commissioned

The UKRI’s response told the majority of researchers they still had to finish their research without any extra funding or time, without targeted help for disadvantaged groups, no blanket support, no standard processes, and no transparency. While many employees got furloughed, PGRs were fobbed off with minimal extra help. It also suggested researchers talk to supervisors about changing their research. As if researchers wouldn’t have already thought of that after being in under lockdown for six months.

There are many researchers that were half way through data collection, or were studying subjects that actually required facilities (such as studying chemistry or biology labs) and couldn’t just suddenly adapt their research to be home-based. On 14th Nov we published a response, heavily criticising UKRI, and reiterating our call for blanket extensions and asking for them to implement the NatCen recommendations.

Parents & Carers Open letter

Parents and carers are another group that has been affected hugely by the pandemic, and have organised a subgroup for mutual support and organising (you can find joining info on the contact page). With the closure of schools, PGRs with children had to spend time at home teaching instead, meaning that research was difficult or even impossible. Likewise, those with caring responsibilities have often found themselves unable to access the same support as before. But no specific targeted support was provided by UKRI.

The parents and carers group produced a letter to UKRI, the government and universities, highlighting the additional impact on them. They highlighted the maximum 3 month cap, the lack of any clarity about the impact that school closures have had in 2021, and the disproportionate impact on those least privileged.

Falling Short Report

The Falling Short report published in early 2021 came out of the collective frustration Pandemic PGRs experienced due to a lack of support from government, funders, and universities, and is a direct response to this and UKRI’s Phase 2 Doctoral Funding Extension Policy. The report highlights how the UKRI’s Phase 2 Doctoral Funding Extension Policy in inadequate. First, it disregards the evidence of the plight of PGRs throughout the country, evidence that was gathered during research commissioned by UKRI itself. It disregards the needs PGRs have for funded extensions to be able to continue and complete their projects, and presents qualifying criteria for extensions which are unfair, inflexible, non-inclusive, and unsympathetic to the disruptions this pandemic has caused. Ultimately, the Phase 2 Policy provides no real action on equality from the Phase 1 evaluations, it ignores the voices of researchers which UKRI has a duty to support, and falls short on providing that support to Postgraduates hit by the global pandemic and crisis in higher education.

The Falling Short report provides a response to UKRI’s own commissioned and direct reports and policies since the beginning of the pandemic, and especially since the most recent announcement in December 2020. We have felt compelled to write a full report due to the extent of misrepresentations and failings we have identified in this material, and the number of issues that have not been explored. We have made a number of recommendations to UKRI about how they must improve practice. We accept, however, that UKRI is not the only relevant stakeholder in this process. As such, we have also made recommendations to government and to universities and ROs. In the interests of equality, and the future of the UK’s research landscape, these must be taken forward. If you would like to email your DTP or MP about our report, we have provide templates for you to use as a starting point.