Postgraduate students urge funders to extend grants over coronavirus

Postgraduate students urge funders to extend grants over coronavirus

PhD and master’s students have signed an open letter asking to be given extensions to their funding by research councils so they can finish work disrupted by the coronavirus.

The letter, which has more than 1,000 signatories across UK universities, asks for research councils to urgently publish a plan outlining additional financial support for all postgraduate students.

Many postgraduate students are currently unable to continue their research projects and theses because fieldwork has been halted and university labs and libraries are shut. Other students may be caring for relatives, while many international students have returned to their home countries.

Most funded PhD students are reliant on the stipend they receive from research councils to cover the cost of living, usually over a three-year period. Some research master’s students and postdocs receive equivalent funding.

The letter states: “Postgraduate research studies are undertaken with limited resources, both in terms of time and finances. Many will have to redirect their efforts away from research to manage the crisis. Through this precarious time they will need to use their funding to support themselves.”

The letter is authored by the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union and the university’s graduate union.

Alessandro Ceccarelli, the graduate union president and a co-author of the letter, said he was prompted to write the letter by the “massive concerns” voiced by postgraduate students both in his university and others.

“Without serious guarantees from UK Research and Innovation and research councils on funding to cover non-medical breaks from study and extensions, students are worried that necessary pauses to their research will leave them without funding to live on, and are unable to make informed decisions about how to continue their research,” he said.

Alice O’Driscoll, a third-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge who signed the letter, said that the libraries and archives she uses to research her thesis were shut at short notice.

“We’re in limbo at the moment. I don’t have all the books I need. The funding deadline remains the same as far as we know so that keeps coming closer, and yet we obviously are having to stop or significantly slow down our workload,” she said.

O’Driscoll has received an email from the team at her university on behalf of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funds her PhD, but it does not offer any guarantees around funding.

The letter states: “At present, our assumption is that we will consider requests for extensions to submission dates or maintenance funding on a case-by-case basis but we will clarify this point in due course.”

O’Driscoll thinks the proposed approach would force PhD students to endure uncertainty over their funding arrangements for too long. “Everyone is facing the same problems and no funding bodies have the capacity to deal with that amount of case work. That’s why we’re asking for a structural response that extends everyone’s funding rather than asking us all to apply,” she said.

UK Research and Innovation, which funds 20,000 students, said: “We will be responding to the letter directly. We recognise the serious challenges facing universities and students as well as the businesses, charities and research organisations we work with.

“We are committed to working closely and at pace with our communities and with the government to understand and respond to the impacts of Covid-19 and find the best solutions.”