Doctoral researchers have felt the brunt of the University of Sussex’s cost cutting agenda. As students and precariously employed teaching staff, their requests for support through the pandemic have received slow and reluctant attention.
Doctoral researchers are some of the hardest working and most valuable members of the university community. Ahead of the UK lockdown being announced, they acted to support the frantic move to online teaching for taught students.
The thanks they received were the Financial Review Guidelines that designated their research and teaching activities as “non business-critical”. While a revised version of that document corrected the unthinkable – that Sussex would cancel its commitment to post-graduate research (PGR) students, and rowed back on the termination of Doctoral Tutors' contracts – for the last three months an atmosphere of uncertainty and worry has been allowed to continue.
In April 2020, PGR reps responded to this situation and surveyed their peers. The survey asked about: PGRs’ experiences of the pandemic; their concerns about completing their PhDs; and the insecurity of their employment as Doctoral Tutors. That survey was completed by 451 people.
The survey highlighted significant and wide-ranging disruptions to doctoral research as a result of the pandemic:
Lack of access to labs, equipment, archives and other resources
Delays and cancellations to fieldwork
Reduced access to supervisors and the research community
Concerns and anxieties about financial uncertainties
Worries about not being able to complete projects on time
Concerns for international researchers around Tier 4 visa status and the costs of international tuition fees
Disproportionate impacts on international, BAME, and self-funded PGRs, as well as researchers from lower-income backgrounds and those with additional health needs or disabilities
63% of respondents (out of which 44% are in the final year of their PhD) report that they would need an extension as a direct result of the Covid-19 lockdown.
The survey highlighted the urgent need to support PGRs at this time, and thankfully following this survey and pressure from postgraduate students, the UCU, and faculty, a £250k hardship fund ringfenced for PGRs was announced by the University of Sussex last week.
This funding is a step in the right direction. However, it fails to answer calls from the PGR community for adequate and equitable support.
Under the current proposal, whilst UKRI funding is being topped up by the University to enable late-stage UKRI-funded PGRs to access up to six months funded extensions, other Sussex PGRs are not assured of such support.
PGRs applying to the hardship fund will have to evidence immediate hardship by supplying three months of bank statements. This means that the scheme cannot be used to fund extensions unless PGRs are willing to be pushed to the unacceptable point of not being able to pay their basic living costs, or those of their dependents. It is also viewed as inaccessible by some international students who are concerned their visa could be removed if they declared financial hardship.
Further, the University has been unwilling to support short-term fee waivers for self-funded students requiring extensions and have indicated that hardship funding is not intended to cover these costs.
The University’s selective support for UKRI-funded PGRs suggests a view that not all PGRs at Sussex are equal.
Whilst it is welcome that UEG are engaging in further discussions on this important topic, we remain concerned that the total amount of funds currently offered for immediate hardship (£250k) continue to be presented as the only funds available to support PGRs at Sussex. We strongly urge the University management to reconsider their decision to selectively support Home and EU PGRs who are receiving funded extensions from UKRI, and to extend this support to the diverse researchers who form our doctoral community at Sussex.
Sussex UCU Exec and Reps