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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

The impact of Covid-19 and the UK public lockdown on postgraduate research students in the UK

Ross Goldstone, Cardiff University

While disruption to educational ‘norms’ has received coverage since the public lockdown, less attention has been shown to the impact of the public lockdown on postgraduate research students. This is despite the significance of research students to the UK’s future research and development (R&D) capacity, ‘world-leading’ higher education sector, and economic performance (CFE Research, 2014). Given the paucity of data collection in this area, I conducted survey research to understand how postgraduate research students had been impacted by the public lockdown. Questions were designed to identify issues being faced by students, enquire into views on current policy, and solicit ideas for how policy might better support students. Using Twitter to circulate the survey, a total of 879 responses were received from 76 institutions from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Below, the key findings from the survey and policy implications are presented, drawing on qualitative responses to the question, How best can you be supported during this crisis?

Of all responding students, 94 per cent reported that their research had been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent public lockdown. Some specific groups of students have been more severely impacted by the lockdown and subsequent policies, for example those with children and caring responsibilities or who have assumed childcare responsibilities (22 per cent of the sample). In addition, students with disabilities are likely to be adversely affected, given the inability to access resources and support that are integral to their studies. The following excerpts provide a snapshot of some of the issues raised across the sample:

Allow mitigating circumstances for childcare, potentially seek extension as major issue is ‘time lost’ (working on average 15h instead of assumed 40h for full-time study).

My dyslexia means I have extreme difficulty screen reading with no access to the uni. I cannot print anything and it makes things very difficult. I will need a funded extension to allow the work needed for my PhD to be done while I have no access to labs.


Figure 1: The proportion of postgraduate research students experiencing stated issuesBar chart illustrating the proportion of postgraduate research students experiencing stated issues

As figure 1 illustrates, a number of issues were and/or are currently being experienced by large proportions of respondents. These include: financial concerns (50 per cent); lack of resources (50 per cent); lack of support (33 per cent); lack of training and skills development opportunities (41 per cent); lost time (76 per cent); and research restrictions, such as being unable to collect data (61 per cent).

In addition, changes in work practices and disruption to their studies had prompted mental health difficulties and increased stress for the majority of responding postgraduate research students (61 per cent and 79 per cent, respectively), who are already prone to such difficulties (Metcalfe, Wilson, & Levecque, 2018). While there will be variation across the diverse postgraduate research student population, the survey found that students were, on average, completing 20 hours of work per week; almost half the amount of time expected by many funding bodies. This shows that for many students a significant amount of time has been, and continues to be, lost.

The findings of this survey highlight an already stress-inducing and uncertain future for postgraduate research students. As a consequence, just under one-in-five students (19 per cent) are now considering leaving their PhD studies, with significant consequences for the individuals, universities, and society more broadly given the level of government funding used to fund PhD study.

This all points to the need for more financially and pastorally responsive support by funders and institutions. A significant number of the open-text responses referred to a need for funded extensions to their programs – the phrase ‘funded extension’ appeared in 104 responses, alone; for example:

A commitment from institutions and funding bodies to a funded extension to my PhD equivalent to the time that will be lost – this would mitigate the impact of lost time as well as reduce stress caused by uncertainty.

The current response by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has been to provide selected final-year PhD students in their final year of study with funded extensions (UKRI, 2020). For those not in their final year there have been calls to adjust research plans, with other support to be considered in the future. Positively, data collected showed that only 22 per cent of students felt adjusting their research plans was ‘not at all feasible’, with remaining students believing this to be possible; though 62 per cent felt this would be ‘difficult’. While this does show that there is potential to mitigate current difficulties, as the open comments have cited, there is presently insufficient consideration of the conditions needed to do this. Adjusting research projects, especially for students in their first and second years who have already spent up to a year planning their research, will need additional time, in which financial support is necessary, to rethink their projects. Furthermore, the ability to rethink existing plans, without the certainty of funded extensions, appears to display an inconsistency in existing support implemented.

This blog has evidenced the profound impact that the Covid-19 public lockdown and subsequent restrictions has had on a sample of postgraduate research students across the UK. In doing so, it has pointed to the need for enhanced support for existing postgraduate research students. Furthermore, the level of response to this student-led survey also indicates the enthusiasm for students to assist decision-making, and to help create effective and inclusive policies to best support them.


References

CFE Research. (2014). The impact of doctoral careers. Policy briefing. Leicester. Retrieved from https://www.ukri.org/files/skills/policy-briefing-idc-pdf/

Metcalfe, J., Wilson, S., & Levecque, K. (2018). Exploring wellbeing and mental health and associated support services for postgraduate researchers. Vitae in partnership with the Institute for Employment Studies and the University of Ghent. Retrieved from https://re.ukri.org/documents/2018/mental-health-report/

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). (2020, April 9). Government announces support for PhD students as a result of coronavirus disruption (news release). Retrieved from https://www.ukri.org/news/government-announces-support-for-phd-students-as-a-result-of-coronavirus-disruption/