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.
- First published by Research Professional, as its ‘Sunday read‘ for 17/1/21