Students have been forced to reformulate research proposals as a result of UKRI's funding announcementGetty Images

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the largest provider of PhD funding in the UK, announced last week that it was advising doctoral students to adjust their research projects so it is possible to complete them within the existing funded period rather than issuing extensions to the funded period.

UKRI said, on their website, that they were now “strongly advising all funded students to speak to their supervisor about adjusting projects to complete a doctoral-level qualification within their funded period.”

As of this Tuesday (24/11), Varsity can confirm that UKRI contacted Cambridge Student Union (CSU) informing them that individual institutions can now apply for block grants which can be granted to the institution before being awarded to students on a case-by-case basis. Students will be invited to apply through their Doctoral Training Programme (DTP). The University are currently in the process of making their application. 

CSU commented that “We were disappointed by UKRI’s announcement, as students in all years of their postgraduate studies have faced significant disruption as a result of the pandemic. We welcome the University’s intention to make additional funding available to those who need it, and that this will take into consideration the practical limits to how much any doctoral project can be revised.”

“However, many of the initial concerns raised by students and staff about UKRI’s decision remain relevant, including the onerous administrative burden on students experiencing disruption to document this disruption; the additional work of revising doctoral projects and supporting individual applications that will fall on already overworked University staff; and the lack of meaningful engagement with students and academic staff throughout the consultation that resulted in this decision.”

The announcement about funding, made on 11th November, caused shock amongst PhD students across the country, particularly those in their 2nd and 3rd year, who were now faced with the prospect of substantially altering their research proposals during the course of the pandemic.

Back in April, UKRI had made an extra £44 million available for those most in need of extensions as well as issuing a blanket six-month extension for students in their final year. 

After making the most recent announcement, UKRI clarified that a further £19 million of funding was available to students in the greatest need. This funding was particularly focused at “students who have recently gone into their final year of study (funding end date before or on 30 September 2021) and those with ongoing support needs.”

However, the vast majority of PhD students are not covered by this extra funding. UKRI’s own report itself admitted that 77% of students not in their final year were in need of an extension. 

Some Cambridge PhD students spoke to Varsity about the impact that the announcement has had on their studies.

One anonymous PhD student spoke of the difficulties of adapting their project during the pandemic, even before the UKRI announcement. The student explained that they were “completely cut off from an academic community for several months as I transitioned from my first project to my second.”

“My supervisor caught Covid and I twice went for over a month between sending emails and receiving a reply. When I did eventually get a reply it was rushed with online video calls also cut short. The UKRI advice is to talk to your supervisor and adapt, but it's very difficult for me to make the case with him that a reason for delays is a lack of support from him.” 

Regarding the support that the student has received, the student said “it seems like there has been little communication between DTPs and supervisors. My supervisor's approach is 'well you should still be able to do everything, it hasn't been too bad for you'.” 

Another student, in their third year of a PhD, said “the problem with ‘scaling-back’ the scope of projects is that for students past their second year this is rarely feasible, as by this point projects are already reduced to a set of achievable and publishable objectives.”

“If I were to change my project proposal so it could be completed on time now, it would require the removal of essential experiments which would probably prevent the work from being sufficiently complete for publication, especially in a high-impact journal. I expect this announcement will lead to a large amount of unfinished research work.”

They continued: “My work is entirely experimental, meaning that throughout the lockdown I was unable to progress on my PhD at all. Even after returning to the work, my access to lab facilities is restricted to certain hours of the week to ensure the department has a sufficiently reduced capacity to facilitate social distancing. I would estimate that the UKRI announcement therefore means that I will have at least 6 months less research time during my PhD than I would have had originally.” 

This has had an adverse impact on the student's mental health, revealing to Varsity that they now “work a minimum of 6 days a week, have had days where I work continuously for 12+ hours without rest, and  I think have worked between 50-60 hours every week since my return to work...Failed experiments and unproductive days used to feel like learning experiences, now they just feel like wasted time and heap on more stress.”

Another student, in their 2nd year of a PhD studying English, was already “in the unfortunate but unusual position of having completely changed my thesis topic in early March, so I really needed access to the libraries to induct myself in the new field of study, as a lot of the material was not (and still is not) digitally available.”

The change of topic meant that the student would already “have been under pressure to finish on time even under normal circumstances. The decimation of productivity entailed by the switch to virtual and concomitant reduction in resources, coupled with the isolation of lockdown, has decisively slowed the pace of my research, as indeed it will have done for everybody. The UKRI announcement has piled more stress onto an already substantial stress-heap.”

The frustration expressed by Cambridge students has been felt by PhD students across the country who have written an open letter to UKRI urging them to “revisit [UKRI's] decision not to provide blanket funding extensions to doctoral candidates whilst also curbing the level of support available for those Post-Graduate Researchers (PGRs) now in their 2nd and 3rd years.”

The letter highlights that “the refashioning of a PhD project ordinarily requires additional time. In order to change their thesis plan, PGR candidates need to retrain in different methodologies, complete additional literature reviews, conduct alternative data collections.”

It goes on to discuss how “PGR students’ access to resources has been suspended in full or in part for 8 months and may not be reinstated in full or in part for some time, severely reducing the timescale in which to realise a PhD project. These include limited access to crucial university resources (e.g. laboratory space or library collections), external resources (e.g. archives and partner organisations), and the ability to undertake international travel for fieldwork.”

The letter calls on UKRI to issue a revised policy providing “a base funding extension for up to six months for all UKRI-funded doctoral students, while also providing targeted support for PGRs with additional needs in relation to the pandemic.”

In addition to this letter, over 1100 academics from Universities across the country, wrote an open letter, in support of PhD students. 


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In this letter the researchers claim that UKRI’s plans fail emerging researchers and damage the long-term research environment of the United Kingdom. 

A spokesperson for Cambridge University and College Union said that “The disregard that UKRI has shown to PhD students is symptomatic of broader issues of dignity and job insecurity for doctoral students in UK universities. At Cambridge alone, PhD students teach approximately 25% of undergraduate supervisions, for very low pay, without secure employment, and without being paid for the training that they are obliged to do before supervising.”

“Universities in the UK need to start treating doctoral students with the respect that they deserve as researchers and teachers, recognizing them as employees, and remunerating them fairly for the work that they do.”