System errors: PGRs and the pandemic*

The new year’s tightening Covid-19 restrictions pose fresh challenges for the UK’s postgraduate research students (PGRs). The long 2020 lockdown blew holes in many students’ research plans, with the closure of laboratories and libraries, the cancellation of fieldwork, and countless other obstacles. While we are better prepared this time, and many research facilities remain open, there are nonetheless renewed, acute pressures. Moreover, now more than ever, our systems for the management and oversight of PGRs are creaking under the strain.

Don’t mention the detriment

As taught programmes flip back to online delivery, ‘no detriment’ is back in the news. This began 2020 as an utopian union slogan, ended it as a brand adopted by any university that wanted to be seen to care for its students, and has been revived with intent by students for lockdown-21. The principle was that taught students would be assessed through methods that acknowledged the ways in which they had been knocked off course. So far – although it gets tougher with each round of assessments – this has just about been possible.

But for PGRs there has been detriment: waves of immitigable detriment. To be sure, some students have sailed through just fine and will continue to do so, and others have adjusted their projects and got back on course; however, a sizeable minority have been stuck with detriment. Right now, students are stuck again with restricted access to archives, and constraints on fieldwork and human-participant research, among other challenges. So if you’re a self-funded student with young children who has lost months of time because of schools’ lockdowns, is locked out of the British Library manuscripts room (again), and lost your part-time work hours months ago, you’ve got detriment.

Money has made a difference for some, particularly those on studentships, but this has also fallen unevenly. Funders and universities made decisions at pace about how to support their PGRs, and the result is a crazy patchwork of commitments and procedures. Hence students studying alongside one another have had different levels of support available to them: some may have access to six-month extensions, some three-month, some none at all. Cost has been a consideration behind these structures, to a greater extent than anyone would feel comfortable trying to justify.

The biggest funder of home students, UKRI, has not helped. After setting the bar needlessly high early in the pandemic by offering six-month funded extensions to students in their final year, UKRI’s much weaker and greatly delayed offer to all other students was one of 2020’s shabbiest pandemic moments. It leaves universities to oversee a competition for limited resources among students with manifest needs, who may not get a response to their application until almost twelve months after the pandemic’s outbreak. Doubtless the cruelty of UKRI has been overplayed on social media. After all, there have been meaner funders, the November report bore signs of pressures exerted by UKRI’s stakeholders, and some doctoral training entities have quietly found money to support their students surprisingly well. Nonetheless, the possibility that UKRI may now pass up the opportunity to rethink its position in response to the new lockdown is morally incomprehensible.

Exposing the cracks

PGR programs are rather too commonly held together with sticks and wire. Mental health was a concern long before the pandemic, and was the subject of a Research England Catalyst Fund project between 2018 and 2020. Work-space has been a running sore on many campuses for years, with PGRs squeezed as universities have increased taught student numbers and research capacity. And some of today’s individual financial horror stories were foreseeable, because many students, especially self-funders on optimistic budgets or those with miserly international funders, were already walking tightropes.

There are issues of visibility here. At a taught level, National Student Survey results are funnelled into league tables, while student numbers feed bottom lines. Governing bodies spend countless hours worrying about this stuff. By comparison, PGRs are less often noticed, institutionally and also nationally. When politicians bang on about value for money, you can bet they are not thinking about the latest Postgraduate Research Experience Survey results. And when academics have been instructed during the pandemic to focus their energies on ‘the student experience’, how many have heard an implicit ‘undergraduate’ in that phrase?

There are also issues of oversight. The sector waited anxiously for the UKRI decrees because it appeared to be setting standards for the sector. Its decision for the non-finalists, however, was a belated reminder that it thinks more like a funder than a regulator. The Office for Students has not been silent on PGRs, but in practice lacks the clout to do anything much about the situation. And it is surely no coincidence that UKRI and the Office for Students report to different ministers. If we wanted a system that worked in the interests of PGRs, this is not how we would design it.

How good is good enough?

A final question: who determines how good a PhD thesis has to be in order to pass? In truth this is one of those academic dilemmas near which it is inadvisable to go; however, here too the pandemic has forced us to look under the carpet. UKRI had a few things to say on the matter in November, not all of which are entirely consistent. They expect that ‘degree standards and awarding processes’ will have been ‘adapted to accommodate … disruption to projects’; they state that ‘[r]educed doctoral outputs … should not be seen to diminish standards in doctoral education’; and yet ultimately assert that ‘[m]aintaining and regulating standards in doctoral education is the responsibility of universities and the regulatory bodies, not UKRI’.

So a Covid PhD might be different from what a student had originally planned. It might not be as good or as long, but must still be ‘doctoral standard’. And assessments of ‘doctoral standard’ may or may not be adjusted by universities, and may or may not be nudged one way or another by examiners at the viva. Meanwhile the biggest funder expresses expectations while shrugging its shoulders about regulation. For students this might be somewhat unnerving; for those of us involved in the management of PGRs, it should cause concern. Who is taking responsibility for ensuring that the country’s system of PGR education, upon which so much of our research reputation rests, is working?

            If Covid has been higher education’s stress-test, we can thus see the flaws clearly enough. Many universities have responded well, most supervisors have behaved superbly, and the majority of students will complete and graduate. But there has been an uncomfortable level of chance in the system, and too many students have looked in vain for safety nets. Coming out of the pandemic, we should be asking whether this is good enough.

Too little, too late for the UKRI Covid-PGRs*

Postgraduate research students funded by UK Research and Innovation have reacted angrily to last week’s Review of Extensions for Students Impacted by COVID-19, and associated funding announcement. After the rapid and generous support provided earlier in the pandemic to students in their final year of funding (which I discussed for wonkhe at the time), this was the moment to address the needs of others. They feel let down, and they have good cause.

PGRs are at the hard end of Covid. Taught students will get their degrees, one way or another. Most academic staff will keep their jobs through the pandemic, albeit with research projects often delayed or remodelled. Among PGRs the effects have been felt unevenly, and many students are progressing just fine. But there is no denyng that PGRs have been uniquely exposed to the effects of Covid, which has knocked projects and lives off course, in some cases irreparably.

Mind the gaps

One figure, though carefully unstated, lies uncomfortably at the heart of the communications last week. That figure is £62 million: the gap between £81m, the need for additional support revealed by UKRI’s summer survey of its PGRs, and the £19m that UKRI is now delivering to research organisations (mainly universities).

People at UKRI may be feeling that the outlay of £19m is not winning them much love. It will be divided between research organisations, and used to support students ‘who are unable to mitigate delays of COVID-19 or adjust their projects’ (but not – and hey, thanks for leaving those of us on the ground to interpret this distinction – ‘to cover “time lost” due to COVID-19’). If it is distributed well, it will help to alleviate some of the more extreme cases of distress. But their own research has just demonstrated that it is not enough: the report estimates that ‘77% of non-final year students required extensions of an average of 5.1 months’.

The figure of £62m also underscores the yawning inequities across the population of UKRI-funded PGRs. Most final-year students were awarded funded extensions; last week’s report states that the average extension granted was 4.6 months. Granted, the needs of final-year students were more urgent, but the pressures on those forced to pause or redirect their energies in the middle of research projects were always likely to be harder to compensate. Anyone could see this coming.

There are also myriad local inequities, since doctoral training entities (DTPs, DTEs, and so forth) have been empowered since the spring – indeed, encouraged – to use underspent resources in their budgets to support non-final-year students. While all entirely proper, we know little about what has been spent, and how. Perhaps there are only two certainties: firstly, that these underspends will amount in total only to a fraction of £62m; and secondly, that individual DTEs will have interpreted the instructions differently, communicated differently, and had different levels of resource on which to draw.

Hence the level of expectation attached to the UKRI survey of students that led to the report. While some degree of inequity is inevitable, surely this would be the moment for UKRI to raise the bar. And hence also the question many are asking now: if they were never prepared to find the money that the survey was always going to identify as necessary to fix this problem, why delay things for months by conducting the survey and writing a report? If £19m was the budget, it would have been better for students to know this in the summer.

And that’s it from us

Some of the creaking you can hear in the pages of this report is the sound of the ropes binding the various organisations with an interest in supporting PGRs. Indeed one way of reading the saga of Covid support for UKRI-funded PGRs is that a handful of people in Swindon have been patching, scraping and tidying as well as they can.

This report is deeply apologetic about the events of the spring. The announcement about final-year students was made too quickly and with little consultation. That’s all correct, but whose announcement was it? And whose money was it? My understanding is that there was coordination with government, and possibly also new money, which is why the announcement was presented under the smiling face of the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway. (It’s difficult to check this, since the information has been removed from the web.) But not last week’s report: UKRI is on its own for this one.

The decision on finalists also posed challenges to universities, since many studentships are co-funded between research organisations and UKRI. If UKRI granted a six-month extension for its share, would universities and other host organisations do the same? Evidently this has been a major source of tension in recent months, and the report states that ‘co-funders would not be able to contribute towards the extension costs of some students’.

University finances are under unprecedented strain, but let’s be honest: for those universities that did not match the UKRI commitment in the spring, and are not prepared to do so for any future extension promises, it’s not a case of not having the money. It’s because they have decided there are higher priorities than supporting PGRs to finish their projects. In a perfect world, a university’s level of support for Covid-affected PGRs would be stamped onto the first page of institutional environment statements for REF2020, as concrete evidence of all the assertions about commitments to research culture.

And where does the decision leave universities like my own, which have already established more generous extension policies for internally-funded students than what UKRI is now proposing? This will create further problems of equity on our campuses, with holders of those prized UKRI studentships potentially having a harder time than some of their peers. And interestingly, all these decisions will fall to universities rather than the independent, usually multi-institutional DTEs: a shift of approach that has mystified many people.

Restructure, restructure, restructure

UKRI communications to students in the past week have rested heavily, if also uncomfortably, on one piece of advice: ‘[UKRI] is strongly advising all funded students to speak to their supervisor about adjusting projects to complete a doctoral-level qualification within their funded period.’

This is valuable, correct, and an example of UKRI’s leadership setting the tone for the sector. But it is also at least six months too late. Yes, UKRI, along with everyone else involved, has been making these noises since early in the first lockdown, but context matters. It is one thing to say this while asking students to fill out a questionnaire asking how much extra support they might need, and another to do so several months later in a report constructed around the edges of a £62m black hole. Many students have already made changes, but some have deferred painful decisions – for the simple reason that researchers are deeply committed to their projects. They completed the survey; they waited; they hoped.

And that’s it?

This report marks the latest and possibly final step in a well-intentioned but incoherent national project to support Covid-affected PGR students. The blame for that does not lie solely at the feet of UKRI. But organisations and governments are rightly judged on the basis of how well they support their most vulnerable members. For those of us involved in the management of research in the UK, this is not a moment for pride.

* This was first published in, 17/11/30


What do you do if you’re a government minister sitting on two major reviews that could have huge consequences for the UK higher education system? The answer, it appears, is: launch a couple of minor reviews that could also have quite significant consequences. If they are ever completed and implemented, that is.

Remember the Augar Review, released in the spring of 2019? Slash fees, redirect support from higher education to further education: all that sort of thing. Theresa May set him loose; Jo Johnson never liked it. Time has moved on, and the latest Tories in charge appear to have neither the will nor energy to do anything much about it. And now they’ve delayed a spending review and got stuck on other things and they’ve got a bunch of new people settling into their ministerial roles and they’re not sure whether universities are the nation’s best asset or the cultural enemy and anyhow with Covid and Brexit it’s really not quite the right time is it?

Remember the TEF review, led by Dame Shirley Pearce? Due to report in the summer of 2019? Hell, does anybody even remember the TEF? It absorbed a lot of our time for a while there, but it was never totally clear whether it mattered. Gold, silver, and nobody’s taking much interest vice-chancellor. So is it going to happen again? And if so, in what form? Some people really want to know these things. 

But while we’re waiting for answers, have some more reviews. First there’s a National Student Survey review: launched with bold words to suggest that the NSS might actually be having a negative effect on standards, what with all that listening to students, so this year’s iteration won’t much matter and might well be the last. But that was followed by a questionnaire that rather seems to assume that the NSS is a jolly good thing after all, it’s just a bit bureaucratic and can produce some unfortunate and unintended consequences. Game playing, you know. So they want it to be less burdensome and not so consistently to show that some of the most satisfied students are at the universities they don’t like, studying those common low-value degrees. (Maybe they didn’t actually say that last bit; I do get confused sometimes.)

Next up is a REF review, announced last week by Science Minister Amanda Solloway. To the extent that her speech can be considered an argument – as opposed to a melange of clichés, anecdotes, and grumbles she picked up around high table at that agreeable Oxford dinner before lockdown – she seems to think that the REF is a jolly good thing, but it’s a bit bureaucratic and can produce some unfortunate and unintended consequences. Game playing, you know. She wants it to be less burdensome, but without relying more on metrics and citations, and presumably not to show that there are serious pockets of excellence at the universities they don’t like, where people research Marxism and critical race theory. (Or did I get that bit wrong as well?)

Universities are being run either by patient people or just people who are having their patience tried. It’s perhaps easy for folks who have drifted into ministries they never much considered not to grasp quite how much all this stuff matters. Like, before Covid came along, Augar was top of university risk registers. And how much of university planning rests on the NSS and REF? When I asked our Council members recently what we would do if the NSS disappeared, I was met by a screenful of uncomprehending, blank faces. They have known no other way of assessing our teaching; they are blissfully unaware than the NSS is an invention of recent date. Now I know that I work at a university that is perceived to worship at the altar of metrics with uncommon fervour, but this really does matter for everyone in UK higher education. All these things are surely too serious for ministers to be messing about with confusing messaging.

And it would be nice to feel like there is some appropriate expertise driving these processes. Let’s take just one fact about that Solloway speech: it makes no mention at all of impact case-studies. How can we have a serious conversation about bureaucracy and unintended consequences in the REF without considering the assessment of impact? How can she exclaim in wide-eyed wonder that ‘over 97% of outputs submitted to REF 2014 were text-based’ without considering that submitted outputs are just the tip of an iceberg, and that there’s so much else happening in terms of impact and knowledge exchange, let alone the one-star and two-star work that everyone does but never expects to submit. ‘Just think about that,’ she said. I have, and I’m worrying that we could be leaping into a review on the basis of this quality of governmental insight.

It will pass. It will all pass. The REF will be reviewed, as it has after every iteration. Stuff will change for the next one. The NSS will probably survive. In time it might even regain its reputation as a reliable vehicle for capturing the student voice, despite being carelessly tarnished by the messaging surrounding this review. The TEF? Most of us won’t notice much either way, to be honest. And Augar? Maybe if nobody mentions him, he will metamorphose into something insubstantial, spectral, to haunt the corridors of the Office for Students and unsettle the sleep of vice-chancellors. Or maybe they could seize the moment and launch another review on the same terms of reference, just to keep the whole process rolling along.

* This was first published in the Times Higher, 30/10/20 (apologies for the delayed posting here)

2020 made us too: the pandemic postgraduate researchers*

We know what qualities are required of undergraduates entering university this autumn, because Universities UK told us. Above all, it appears, they need to be strong. As we await the release of an equivalent video for postgraduate research (PGR) students, it is worth reflecting on the challenges they will face, and the consequences for those of us teaching them. Their experiences will be unlike any that their supervisors have confronted themselves.

For the first few months of lockdown, managers of PGR programmes were overwhelmingly concerned with the interests of current students. As I have discussed here before (and more here), this involved a furious period of creating and revising policies, and intense struggles to secure funding for extensions of programmes and studentships, where appropriate. All of this will continue, but the 2020 starters raise a whole new set of issues.


How will they pay for that?

One of the first rules of managing PGR programmes is that whenever times are hard you can expect some bright spark from finance to discover that these students are costing the university money. For someone trained to see students as sources of income, this can feel like locating a key to the safe. Stop teaching PGRs and we can fill that hole in the budget: right?

not as simple as that, of course. There are many reasons why a university would devote resources to PGRs: their contribution to research capacity and culture, their significance to the REF and league tables, their place in internationalisation strategies, and so forth. And universities don’t lose money on all PGRs. But when times are really hard – I mean, mass redundancies hard – all these arguments can be harder to nail. The ‘studentships’ budget-line is eminently raidable.

for PGRs is nonetheless a complex jigsaw puzzle. Ten PGRs working in the same room may be supported by a combination of research councils, charities, private industry, foreign governments, endowments, the students themselves, and the university. Many packages will be pieced together by a combination of the above, maybe even without the student ever understanding the proportions involved. And many of the self-funders typically rely on part-time teaching (another budget-line now under pressure).

Notably, it will not only be universities tightening their spending on PGRs. All of the above sources of funding – with the arguable exception, in the short term at least, of research councils – are going to be affected by Covid and its economic effects. The impact of this may be felt less in 2020-21 than might otherwise have been expected, on account of the fact that a significant proportion of contracts with prospective students had been agreed by the time that Covid-19 hit. The inevitable downturn in PGR numbers might quite possibly be more pronounced in 2021-22.


How will they manage that?

Let’s say a student has been appointed to a project that begins on campus in autumn 2020 and involves twelve months of research in the Amazon, leaving June 2021. The studentship is funded by a grant held by the supervisor, specifically designed to examine the Amazon region. The student is expecting to work in the Amazon, the supervisor needs the student to work in the Amazon, but nobody knows now whether the university’s insurers will cover the trip come the spring. What happens?

that’s a hypothetical case, questions like this are being asked right now at universities all across the country. After shelling out (quite properly) for extensions to cover unavoidable delays to current students, no university wants to sleepwalk into a new set of claims coming from 2020-21 starters. The prospect of being sued under consumer rights law is also entirely plausible. Unlike students on taught programmes, every PGR has an individualized contract, and the university has a responsibility to consider and offset reasonably foreseeable risks.

When we first faced these questions at my own university, earlier in the summer, it became apparent that we needed some institutional guidance on pandemic planning assumptions for the coming two years. Do we expect travel to Brazil to be possible next June? Do we expect our research laboratories to be open at full capacity by March? Do we expect practical theatre studies research to be possible by December? Since there has been little need to consider this stuff for taught students, we found ourselves drafting our university’s planning assumptions for the Covid future, giving shape to the narrative of the pandemic’s progress. So: is there a ‘risk’ of campus closures in 2020-21 or a ‘significant risk’? Questions like that had to be answered.

While part of the exercise was semantics, the key has been communication with incoming students. A small number have been advised to defer, since there is a high risk to their projects. A much larger number have discussed and agreed contingency plans with supervisors. For some projects, maybe there’s another river system that might, if necessary, serve the researcher’s purposes almost as well as the Amazon. And many are just choosing to accept a degree of unpredictability as part of the pandemic PhD equation.

We are also well aware that life on campus will be very different for the foreseeable future. Typically, PGRs work in shared offices and labs, often cramped even by pre-Covid standards. For 2020-21, when socially distanced space will be at a premium, much more time will necessarily be spent off campus. Many students may in fact opt to start their projects from a distance, taking advantage of online induction and training, and the expectation that most supervision will be virtual anyway.

The meaning of ‘research culture’ will shift accordingly. Some existing students have been delighted by the switch to online seminars, coffee mornings, and so forth. If you are living a distance from campus, and maybe juggling study with family or caring commitments, this has been transformative. But many others are feeling isolated and frustrated, stuck alone in a single room for most of every day, perhaps continents away from loved ones. Universities will need to work extra hard in support of new students, to ensure these conditions can sustain them.


What kind of skills do I need for that?

Postgraduate research will continue through the pandemic, but we need to be honest about the changed conditions of work and the risks to many projects. Let’s leave strength for the undergraduates; PGRs will need to be flexible, adaptable, resourceful, patient and independent. Arguably, these are precisely the core skills PGRs have always required most of all, although we have not often enough paused to reflect on their value.

First published in, 18/8/20

PhD students still waiting for answers in post-Covid confusion*

Policies affecting the lives of tens of thousands of postgraduate research students (PGRs) in the wake of Covid-19 continue to unfold in unexpected ways. I have spent time in meetings debating at length the gnomic utterances of United Kingdom Research and Innovation, some of which have misled large sections of the sector, others of which have at least appeared contradictory. We enter July with many students far behind on their schedules, and uncertain what the future holds.

The latest epistle from UKRI comes in the form of a response by Professor Rory Duncan, Director of Talent and Skills, to a widely-circulated petition ‘regarding specific reasonable adjustments for disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students due to Covid-19’. Most controversially, this petition demanded six-month funded extensions ‘for all PhD students’, attacking the prevailing model of case-by-case consideration. The UKRI response helpfully moves this discussion forward, but not without prompting further questions, and underscoring the challenges of coherent policy-making in this area.

The bottom line across the sector is that Covid-19 will delay, even derail, PGR projects. And this will cost universities money, whether through the extension of funding packages, the easing of fees, or simply the cost of extended periods of resourcing and supervision. Having written earlier in the lockdown about this issue, which receives less attention than it deserves, it is worth asking where we are now. Which questions have been answered, and which ones remain? And for the longer term, how might the plight of our PGRs now prompt a rethink of how we manage this critical slice of higher education in the future?


UKRI’s Qs & As

The letter performed its main task admirably. While it insisted that UKRI-funded students in genuine need of support must get it, it trenchantly defended the principle of case-by-case consideration. In a world of constrained, finite resources, the demand for blanket extensions was always logically, and indeed ethically, dubious. In Duncan’s words: ‘Funding students who do not require financial support to finish their degree would be inappropriate and may diminish our ability to fund other things in the future, including for example future PhD students.’ Precisely; hopefully we have heard the last of this argument.

Duncan also confronted a deep-rooted myth, that UKRI is offering no support to students who were not in their final year of funding at the time of lockdown. ‘I note the perception that extensions are only available to final year students or capped at a maximum of six months. This is not the case – any UKRI student whose funded period ends after 1 March 2020 who has been affected by Covid-19 can request a costed extension from their training grant holder.’ The provenance of this myth is fascinating to the afficionado, but admittedly less important now than the questions that remain. First of these is: where is all the necessary money going to come from, given that underspend in doctoral training entities is very unlikely to cover the need? And the second is: what limitations might UKRI put on claims, particularly in terms of the possible maximum length of extensions?

The answers to these questions will have serious consequences. Hopefully by the end of the summer, once UKRI has examined the evidence of its recent institutional surveys focused on the impact of Covid-19 on PGRs, we will have a new package of support, with clear guidelines about how it can be used. But how long, in all fairness, can we keep students waiting when they may need to make some big decisions about the shape and future of their projects?


Who’s looking after our PGRs?

Arguably the letter also exposed a more fundamental weakness in PGR policy-making. The petitioners addressed themselves (principally, though not exclusively) to UKRI, just as universities have tended to wait for UKRI to take the lead on this issue. But not only is UKRI in reality a coalition of research councils, each of which has historically approached PGR funding differently, it also has limited control over this field. In reality, by their own reckoning roughly 80 per cent of PGRs in UK universities are not UKRI funded, while most UKRI-badged studentships also include a percentage of match-funding from universities and/or external partners. UKRI is certainly the most influential stakeholder in this area of policy, but it is a very long way from being the only one.

This has put universities, and in turn students, in uneasy positions. It has been entirely rational to wait for guidance from UKRI, given the widespread desire for a coherent, national response to these challenges, and a hope for another burst of state largesse. The injection of support for students in their final year has indeed made a big difference to a lot of people. But universities still face further tricky decisions. Given the match-funding of studentships, UKRI’s decisions are not cost-free for universities. Match-funding of PhD studentships seemed like a nice idea in the good times, and in truth research councils leaned heavily on universities to further this agenda. But the result now is that universities, perhaps in severe financial distress, are scrambling to get a grip on the possible consequences of these arrangements.

All parties involved in these decisions are also becoming acutely aware of the complex, in some instances contested, relationships between UKRI, universities, and doctoral training entities. Who now makes the policies? Who now makes the decisions? Who communicates authoritatively with students? And who now bears the cost? These can be complex negotiations, typically involving several universities and even more external partners. These relationships have perhaps never been stress-tested, and not all parties have come through the past months entirely content.

The situations facing students holding studentships funded from other sources can be still more confusing. In his letter, Duncan politely points out the limits of UKRI’s influence; meanwhile, at universities across the country decisions are being made about the extent to which internal funds might be made available for these purposes. Will an offer be made to all students or just to those in their final year? Will support be offered to students funded by external sources that are not willing or able to fund an extension? And on what criteria will these decisions be made? Looking across the sector, it seems now certain that different universities will reach different positions on these questions.

My own university took a leap forward by implementing comparatively early a policy of funded extensions of up to six months for all internally-funded students, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Assessing the first round of applications, it is immediately apparent how intense the needs of some students are. Some are doing just fine, of course, and have not applied. But others are coping not only with the closure of labs, but with caring responsibilities, family anxieties, and mental health concerns, among other issues. Moreover, in some cases six months, while it may appear generous and surely stretches the magnanimity of our governing body, will not be sufficient. For instance, students whose work is season-dependent may face the choice of taking extra time self-funded or reconfiguring their projects.

And then things get even more demanding. The challenge of dealing with external partners, such as businesses and charities, remains. Few will welcome further requests for funds; some may have been damaged, or even blown away by Covid-19. Options to support self-funded students are more limited still, but many universities are reviewing fee arrangements and access to hardship funds. And international students are also of acute concern to managers of doctoral programmes, as they were for the hundreds of people who petitioned UKRI. Again UKRI has no control at all over these students: not over their funding, not over their visas. Some will find their funders (most often international government bodies, occasionally private organisations or families) to be generous, while others will be themselves in straitened circumstances. Some of the students most affected may also be most reticent to ask for help.

As the UKRI letter demonstrates, it is by no means clear who has proper oversight of this tangled, inequitable field of policy. The world of doctoral training entities, match-funded studentships, industry collaboration, and so forth, has transformed in the past decade or two, without much reflection or oversight. The QAA’s influence is limited these days, while the Office for Students never projects a convincing grasp of PGR matters. Addressing the petition to UKRI was therefore fair enough in the circumstances; however, as the response politely points out, while UKRI may well be expected to set the tone, and even to uncover some fresh sources of money, they can’t fix what they don’t own. There are wells of goodwill towards PGRs, not least on university campuses, but the challenges presented by Covid-19 suggest the need for a rethink. Perhaps we should aim to enter the next crisis with students having a greater sense that someone is looking out for them.

* First published at, 6/7/20

PhD funding in the Covid-19 era*

In the hours before the Easter break, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) gifted final-year PhD students an extra six months of funding. It is symptomatic of this period of accelerated policy-making that this announcement felt long-awaited. It is perhaps also a sign of the times that its details took many people by surprise: begging as many questions as they answered, inciting a wave of grumpy tweets from students, and leaving universities with fresh headaches to nurse over the vacation.

Covid-19 is presenting intense challenges for postgraduate research students (PGRs). Some are unable to proceed with the core business of research: conducting experiments, collecting data, working in archives, and so on. Many are international students, sitting out the university closures either in their home countries, far away from their academic support networks, or in the uncomfortable confines of UK student housing. By comparison with undergraduates, many more PGRs will have young children, and therefore be affected by the closure of nurseries and schools. But these impacts are also radically uneven. No two PGR experiences are ever identical, and right now the effects of Covid-19 are being felt – or, in some cases, not felt much at all – in myriad ways.

The funding of PGRs is also highly uneven. Some are entirely funded by external bodies, such as UK research funders or international government schemes. Some are entirely self-funded. Many others are supported by partnership arrangements involving some combination of a funding agency, a business or charity, and/or a university. These arrangements, encouraged by UKRI over the past couple of decades, mean that a UKRI-funded Centre for Doctoral Training or Doctoral Training Partnership might well involve commitments from several universities and a dozen or so external bodies. Covid-19 might upset these arrangements in all sorts of ways. We probably even have students co-funded by companies that will not exist by the time this crisis has passed.

Locked out of labs and offices, many PGR students understandably have felt anxious, even abandoned, over the past weeks. But their interests were raised in some of the earliest national lobbying, and has been the subject of intense work within universities. PGR management and support teams have been stretched, tracking individual students in especially difficult circumstances, and rewriting policies within days. Universities that have worked hard to maintain systems of PGR student representation, and that now have strong and articulate student leaders in post, are unusually well placed. Trust is a precious commodity.


The lucky few

But funding for lost time has been looming from the very beginning as the single biggest question for PGRs. Universities appreciated the lead that UKRI took on 26 March, when it announced a policy of funded extensions for any student, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. But that statement left some loose ends, particularly concerning the overall cost and how it would be covered. Hence the level of anticipation in advance of last Thursday’s announcement.

Specifically, UKRI declared that its ‘funded doctoral students in their final year will receive an extension to their research with additional grants, known as a costed extension, of up to six months providing them with peace of mind that they will be able to complete their studies. The extension offer will apply to final year PhD awards that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.’ This has initially been interpreted as a commitment to a blanket six-month extension for all eligible students. That’s not exactly what it says – note the conditional clauses ‘up to’ and ‘PhD awards that have been impacted’ – but at this stage I think it is fair to assume this is what it means. In advance of any further details regarding process, it looks as though any student with a completion date in the designated period who sticks up a hand will be given six months of funding, from a new government pot of money.

The key to that announcement was the quote from the Science Minister, Amanda Solloway, signalling that this was new money and possibly also a modification of the government’s approach to PGRs. She said: ‘The extra six months study funding announced today will give students who have spent years on their research, and who in some cases are helping in the fight against coronavirus, certainty that they will be able to complete their courses in spite of the disruption caused by this outbreak. We are committed to investing in the future of our world-leading science and research community.’ One might reasonably infer from this that certain lines of argument have worked with the government. Note, for instance, ‘spent years on their research’, ‘helping in the fight against coronavirus’, and ‘investing in the future’. The stuff she was presumably told about complex case-by-case circumstances? Maybe that just didn’t crack it.

And maybe the comment about investment helps to explain why the extensions will be for six months, when at present we are still in the first month of a lockdown of uncertain duration. At a time when there is so much talk nationally about ending the lockdown, an assumption of six-month delays is striking, going further than most student demands, and most likely also exceeding internal planning assumptions within universities. But perhaps it makes more sense when considering the employment prospects for PhD graduates in the current circumstances, as universities and research funders count their losses and scale back on recruitment plans. Just weeks ago many academics were on strike over the plight of the precariat; with the possible exception of some areas of medical research, Covid-19 will make this situation worse. In short, the extensions help an acutely vulnerable cohort, and hence support the wider national interests of maintaining the research base.


Following the money

The greatest drawback to last week’s announcement is the way it divides the PGR community. While this body is never especially cohesive, given the markedly different circumstances in which any two given PGRs may operate, UKRI has driven a wedge between different categories of students. UKRI-funded students with less that a year until completion are today considerably happier than those with more than a year to go. There were doubtless reasons not to like the ‘case-by-case’ approach of the 26 March UKRI statement – it is cumbersome, raises questions of process, and could place unnecessary pressures on students to demonstrate impact – but it was at least consistent and ethically defensible. I understand that by last week most universities had in principle adopted it for granting extensions (though not necessarily funded extensions).

There is also uncertainty for students who are not wholly funded by UKRI. The ‘frequently asked questions’ document released in support of the funding announcement places an unnerving weight on the verb ‘hope’. Looking towards co-funded students, who in fact are the vast majority, it states: ‘We hope that funding partners will be able to provide additional funding to support extensions … but understand many partner organisations are facing uncertainty and financial constraints too.’ Most universities will appreciate this as code; in effect we have little choice but to match the UKRI commitment. But external partners will feel less pressure, maybe taking the acknowledgement of their ‘financial constraints’ as an invitation to step back. Pressure to fill these gaps will thus in turn weigh heavily on universities, hit now by multiple demands of uncertain dimensions. The UUK proposal (also published over Easter) for a doubling of QR funding would help to meet these costs, but as we all wait for a response to that request students will quite reasonably be wanting answers.

And there is even more uncertainty for students not funded at all by UKRI. There will be pressure on universities in these cases as well. For example, if your university has made a fuss about its own branded studentships, it can hardly afford now to stand back and watch these students get a lesser deal than those funded by UKRI. But then it will need also to consider students funded by bodies less generous than UKRI, or those co-funded with external organisations which are perhaps more likely to be withdrawing than extending their support. Estimating the cost of these measures is complicated by a number of unknowns: whether to apply funded extensions case-by-case or across the board, the length of the current (and any possible future) lockdown, and UKRI’s assertion that there may be further commitments from them still to come.

Finally, for self-funded students there is not so much uncertainty as a sinking feeling. If you are a self-funded Masters by Research student in the sciences, for instance, locked out of your lab for four months, you face losing almost 10 per cent of the time for which you carefully budgeted, and if you are unlucky in the timing closer to 15-20 per cent of the time designated for experiments. Universities across the country are looking into hardship funds, which tend not to be geared towards PGRs. They may also need to consider what ‘mitigation’ might mean for a research dissertation. There is a risk that some students will be lost if no solutions for them are identified.


Squeaky bum time

Many people in control of university finances struggle to understand the economics of PGRs. Conditioned to see universities as businesses and PGTs as nice little earners, they can struggle to appreciate the difference that a consonant can make to the bottom line. There are many reasons for universities to support PGR programmes, but making money is never one of them. Now such people – finance directors, lay governors, and so forth – will be presented with blank cheques to sign, even if universities are to match the UKRI commitments to date. There are good reasons for PGRs to feel uneasy.

The UKRI announcement is thus welcome to the extent that it injects fresh resource into the system, offering a powerful statement of support and making a material difference to many students. But it also fractures the PGR community, stretching fragile bonds of trust between students, universities and funders, and positing the risk that not all universities will be able to match this level of support for all students. In some respects it serves merely to underscore the Covid-19 questions that were already pressing upon everyone with an interest in PGR programmes. These were never going to be easy to resolve, and UKRI has not necessarily made the job any easier.

First published by 14/4/20

‘That’s not my university’: making sense of the media*

FirtTackling another week’s worth of attacks on universities feels a bit like reading one of those books for toddlers. ‘That’s not my university, Julian Brazier; my university is not a left-wing indoctrination camp.’ ‘That’s not my university, Owen Jones; my university is not a neo-liberal corporation.’ But maybe this is not about my university at all. Maybe it’s not about any of our universities.

The ‘university’ in public discourse is much discussed, with a fury that seems only to escalate with the commentator’s distance from the realities of higher education. It occupies a discursive space in which rival views of ideal societies are tested. Hence the unreal isolation of higher education in much of this discourse, as though all the nation’s problems can be fixed here. Let’s look at social inclusion without worrying about early-years education; let’s fret about free speech without bothering about media ownership.

The logic of such arguments goes a bit like this. I assert that a phenomenon exists and is damaging the entire nation. I identify this phenomenon within universities. And then I claim that if the phenomenon is fixed in universities we can change the country. It’s a form of utopian thinking: imagine universities as an island and the commentator as a benevolent dictator. At that point it’s easy enough to believe that universities can fix all sorts of things: free speech, racism, the youth mental health crisis, social inequality. For Brazier, by closing down some universities we might even be able to fix the unfortunate tendency for well-educated people to assess the evidence and choose not to vote Conservative.

Setting aside for a moment what tends to happen in utopias (which is rarely good), let alone what invariably happens to benevolent dictators (which is also pretty grim), where does this leave those of us working in universities? This stuff drives vice-chancellors crazy. Each assault seems to demand a response and every column is doubtless laden with untruths, but how should a university leader – indeed anyone involved with universities – respond?

In the seventeenth century there was a brief fashion for animadversion, a form in which an antagonist’s text was cut into pieces and interspersed with critical comments. It was a neat way to assert intellectual control over an antagonist. Then came the letter to The Times, weighted with the authority of titled signatories. Now we have social media, with its illusion of free exchange but its unending spirals of whataboutery and nuttery. It is genuinely hard to find spaces for dispassionate assessment of evidence, appreciation of the complex systems within which universities operate, and maybe even respect for those with experience and expertise. Given that this is precisely how we operate within universities, that’s a particularly maddening paradox.

But what would be the consequences of accepting that there’s actually not much we can do? If people are determined to lay their utopian fantasies upon their idea of a university, there really may not be much point outlining their errors. The university, after all, is not their main concern; it’s just a discursive space in which to take their ideology for a walk. In this context maybe the best thing for universities to do is just get on with stuff. And, like, all the good stuff we do: research, education, student support, aspiration-raising, community engagement, and so forth. We’re not going to be able to stop the attacks, because they are about so much more than us.

This is not to say we retreat to another idea of insularity, rather that we adhere to the principles on which academic work rests. We ask: what’s your evidence for that? And we demonstrate the place of universities within wider structures (e.g. funding models, visa laws, primary and secondary education systems), and entrenched social problems (e.g. inequality, post-Brexit racial tensions, underfunded mental health services). The problems our critics pin to universities are rarely, if ever, specific to universities.

Maybe we even go on strike. While I despise the zealots standing outside universities and interpreting our strikes for their own ideological ends, and suspect the UCU of some utopian thinking and dodgy data of its own, I respect colleagues striking in good faith for fine causes. We will take a beating in the public sphere during the strike, but this too will be coloured by ideology. As Jones has demonstrated, much of what we read about the strike will not much be concerned with universities at all.

I suspect that recent higher education ministers have understood this point about attacks on universities. They found scraps to toss to the gallery – free speech, value for money, Augar – but basically let us get on with being bloody good. Our new minister, Michelle Donelan, has apparently distinguished her time in parliament by raising questions about vice-chancellors’ ‘outrageous’ pay and unconditional offers somehow ‘closing doors’. So far, so simplistic. It will be easy enough to say ‘yes, minister, we can fix all of that’. It’s what she will want to hear, and it’s what VCs like to say. But honesty, about the complexity of most problems and the position of universities within the nation, may produce better policy.

The impact agenda has refreshed my academic career

Apologies to regular readers if you’ve been waiting forlornly for posts in recent months. This piece helps to explain the distraction: normal service will resume.

If, 10 years ago, I had declared to my line manager that I wanted to manage a summer-long creative arts project across England and Wales, she would have told me to get back to my monograph. Professors of 17th-century literature needed to know their place back then. But the impact agenda has changed all that.

Impact remains controversial among some academics yet, in the UK, it has opened doors to different, more varied careers. It has changed relationships between academics and their research and between universities and the wider world.

In the midst of all the anxieties about the next research excellence framework – submissions for which are due next year – it is worth keeping this point in mind. The REF may be warping the practices of academics and their employers alike, but it is the introduction of impact in the 2014 REF that is chiefly responsible for this transformation.

My own obsession has been with creating a digital map of England and Wales filled with crowd-sourced poems written by people who care about particular places and their histories. Titled “Places of Poetry”, it is a simple enough idea. It is also born out of research: work done by me and my partner, the poet Paul Farley, on Michael Drayton’s 17th-century poem, Poly-Olbion: an attempt to describe the history and geography of England and Wales – all of it – in 15,000 slightly crazy, occasionally beautiful hexameter lines.

We wanted to use Drayton’s model, in which places provide points of entry to history, and to adapt the stunning, decorative county maps that were published with Poly-Olbion. But we wanted to capture multiple perspectives, of writers from different parts of the country, of different ages and different levels of experience. We wanted a polyvocal record of the meanings of places.

Just over halfway through the project, we have about 3,500 poems. We are also nearing the end of a programme of targeted engagement activities, centred on pairing poets-in-residence with heritage sites. We’ve been working with sites from Caernarfon Castle to Ely Cathedral, Big Pit National Coal Museum in South Wales to Byker Wall Estate in Newcastle upon Tyne. These activities are putting a spotlight on different kinds of heritage, and in many cases engaging with particular community groups.

Anyone doing anything like this will be familiar with the queasy feeling prompted by the question: “Where’s the impact in that?” The bureaucratisation of impact – with professional advisors, evidence gatherers, case study writers – is one of the questionable aspects of this agenda. What proportion of the funding distributed on the basis of the REF is spent on the bureaucracy that the REF encourages, if not requires? But these questions, these experts, can also help shape projects and maximise their value, as we have found.

Perhaps the biggest argument for a university to take a lead on this kind of work, however, is because it can. One reason it can is that academics are generating, as a matter of course, the ideas and research that can lead to impact. In the course of Places of Poetry, I’ve been amazed by how many people have wanted to learn about Poly-Olbion. That point of inspiration, and our knowledge of it, matters, just as Paul’s credibility as a poet also matters.

And a university can because it has the infrastructure to support complex, multifaceted projects. Most of our partners just could not do this themselves: the arts and heritage sectors are fuelled by passion, but are often very short on resources. Yet Places of Poetry is not at all an isolated case: the impact agenda has stimulated a wave of partnership-building between universities and the arts and heritage sectors. If you see an ambitious initiative of this kind, there is a good chance that, as Universities UK likes to say, it was #MadeAtUni.

One common misconception in the lead-up to REF 2014 was that arts and humanities subjects would struggle with impact. To be sure, impact in the sciences can present easier stories to tell, but we should also recognise, and in my view celebrate, impact in the arts and humanities. It connects universities with the public, stimulates creativity and innovation, and provides answers to the question: “What has research in your field ever done for me?”

It can also refresh careers – even for middle-aged scholars of 17th-century literature.

  • Published in Times Higher Education, 13/9/19

Cambridge and the slave trade: extended mix of a letter to The Times*

The decision by Cambridge University to establish an enquiry into how it benefited from the slave trade was attacked by Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar as setting ‘new standards of political correctness. Will the Cambridge vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, be worried? I expect he will be delighted.

Inclusivity is one of the biggest challenges facing university leaders, especially at elite institutions. In A-Levels, black students significantly under-perform against other ethnic groups; fewer than 500 achieved three As or better in 2016-17. Similar attainment gaps have been identified within universities.

In this context, attracting students of black African and black Caribbean origin is a huge challenge, and creating an environment in which they will fulfil their potential is maybe even more challenging. Pressure is being placed on elite universities by the Office for Students and liberal politicians. More importantly, university leaders increasingly recognize the value, for all students, of diverse learning environments. At Exeter, I’ve been privileged this academic year to be involved in a project to address these issues.

Critics of the Cambridge decision have labelled it ‘virtue signalling’, deploying the reactionary’s suspicion that anyone looking virtuous must merely be putting on a show. And yet universities today spend much time and money on signalling their virtues, usually in the form of ‘values’ or ‘mission statements’ that are rarely read or remembered. By contrast, Cambridge is enacting its virtues, and sending in the process a much more powerful message to former, current and potential students.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the reaction to the Cambridge announcement has been hearing professional historians – outliers, admittedly – arguing that knowing more about the past might be a bad thing. Biggar himself rests his profile less on his position as a theologian than his current research project designed to resurrect the reputation of the British Empire. This all feels a little bit like proponents of sovereignty arguing that a little bit more democracy would be a bad thing. Maybe there’s just a bedrock of reactionary illogic holding some people from engaging with the rest of us at the moment.

And in truth there are few risks to this review. Broadly speaking, the outcomes are known: of course Cambridge benefited from the slave trade, as all major British institutions did. I expect the recommendations are also envisaged in advance: a package of student support, some curriculum changes and staff hires, changes to university symbolism and the built environment, and so on. Some of the trickier decisions may fall to colleges rather than the University: this thought might just have crossed Toope’s mind as well. Critics have said the University should do other things if it’s serious about inclusivity, but without explaining why doing this will prevent it from doing those as well.

Biggar turns his ire in closing on the ‘aggressively woke’ Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, whose research on colonialism takes a somewhat different approach to the topic to Biggar’s own. For an Oxbridge vice-chancellor, looking for brand ambassadors to crack the challenge of inclusivity in 2019, I would suggest that Gopal looks a better bet than her antagonist and Times columnist. If you were one of the 500 or so black students predicted three As at A Level – a cohort of interest to all the UK’s elite universities – would you be feeling more warmly towards Oxford or Cambridge this week?

  • Back in the day, we might have said ‘the twelve-inch version’. There’s only so much you can say on 200 words, so there are a few more here. Thanks to Rosemary Bennett, at The Times, for inviting a response to Nigel Biggar’s piece (which really wound me up).

Intangible research funding for the arts and humanities: comments on a proposal

When ideas emerge from right-wing think-tanks, appealing to popular resentments about existing bureaucratic systems and vaguely promising a brighter future for all, maybe we should be prepared for trouble. And so it goes with John Marenbon’s Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities, which makes a delightfully subtle case for ‘funding’ by removing the arts and humanities from their two principal funding streams.

Readers of the report might know Marenbon as a distinguished Cambridge professor of Medieval philosophy. Or they might remember him as the author of such articles, released through the Politeia think-tank, as Militancy on the March (attacking the academic strikes earlier this year), or ‘OFFA’s Topsy-Turvy World’ (a critique of widening participation in higher education). From the perspective of a senior research fellow of Trinity College, it is perhaps easy to believe that humanities researchers should not have to scrabble about for state funding, submitting ourselves to scrutiny and public accountability. One’s college does a much better job of supporting one’s research.


Intangible resources for intangible assets

Intangible Assets proposes abolishing the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and removing arts and humanities subjects from the Research Excellence Framework (REF). (The latter argument was repackaged for The Guardian last week.) He suggests that the quality-related (QR) funding that flows from the REF would remain the same, but be determined by the performance of all those other subjects which are so manifestly more suited to the REF’s assessments. AHRC funding, meanwhile, would be redirected into the creation of permanent teaching-and-research posts. The British Academy, which accounts for a small fraction of arts and humanities funding, could stay, because its standards are sound – and, well, John is a fellow, of course. How we would continue to fund PhD students remains something of a mystery.

The report’s evidence is heavy with questionable assumptions and back-of-an-envelope statistics. If I was trying to determine how much time a REF panellist devotes to grading an item, I might start by surveying some of them. I might also consider whether their universities relieve them of other duties while working on the REF. But that would be too rigorous for Marenbon, who concocts his way to a figure of 2000 pages of reading a day, to be done outside normal hours. (Conclusion: The REF is a sham.) Similarly, before dismissing the assessment of impact – which he considers pointless for the humanities – I might bother to read some four-star case-studies. I might also enquire about the effect of QR funding on arts and humanities departments across the sector, before asserting that ‘no [QR] money reaches’ them (an outright falsehood by my experience). And I might even consider the achievements of some AHRC-funded projects before pontificating about the ‘damage’ that grant-funding does. Indeed I might consider these to be basic methodological expectations of a researcher.

Some arts and humanities academics – particularly those involved in institutional struggles for resources and recognition – might as a result feel uneasy about Marenbon’s logic. He breezily assumes that if the overall QR pot remains the same, universities will remain well resourced and the arts and humanities will be protected. Hence universities should be required – presumably by the Office for Students, but he doesn’t say – to provide research leave, while somehow or other all that former AHRC money will find its way to the right place. How this all squares with resource allocation models within legally autonomous institutions, a culture of ‘value for money’ in a sector otherwise funded by students’ fees, and a mass higher education system with vastly uneven funding and career structures to begin with, is never really addressed.


And is there honey still for tea?

Like so much utopian discourse, Marenbon relies heavily on an idealized representation of an ‘old world’. There was a time, he says, when arts and humanities academics all did some teaching, some research, and paused every day for a three-course lunch at high-table. Ok, so I made up that last bit, but the vision of a world in which nobody was monitoring academics’ work, nor urging them to compete for research support, and assessment was reserved for the rare occasions on which one would apply for promotion, is designed to seduce. What’s not to like?

In truth, this is a blueprint for constraint and elitism. Oxbridge would survive well enough, but what about other universities, where resources are tighter? If no income was generated by research in the arts and humanities, could we confidently expect the vice-chancellor of a university struggling with debt and falling student numbers to maintain staffing levels and protect research time, let alone consider promotions and pay-rises in the humanities faculty? Moreover, it’s worth noting that some universities never experienced the revered ‘old world’, so it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine how, from current working conditions that are often radically different to those familiar to Marenbon, they might now contrive to return to it. And with no research council to make the case for what we do as researchers, could we realistically hope that policy-makers would smile benignly upon us for ever more? Like many who profess to believe in a small state, Marenbon places great trust in its readiness to enforce the regulations that he devises.

As much as we might sometimes wish to deny it, money matters for the arts and humanities. Within a year from now, in the wake of the Augar Review, students could be paying less for arts and humanities degrees. Already many universities are under financial strain, and redundancies and departmental closures are likely to accelerate. The system as a whole is fluid and contested, and in this context both the REF and the AHRC give the arts and humanities visibility, credibility and representation. These things matter. Even to contemplate tossing all that away risks inviting all sorts of insidious and unreliable forces into the conversation. After all, there are plenty of people who would like to see the arts and humanities weaker and poorer.


To pretend that we can improve working conditions while evading public accountability and competition for resources is thus to display reckless disregard for the prevailing conditions in which we operate. Right now there are people in this country fighting tirelessly to convince sceptical politicians of the value of the arts and humanities, in the many contexts in which they are taught and researched. John Marenbon is not one of them.