It is important that everyone feels informed about the University’s response to research disruption following the COVID-19 lockdown, and the ongoing tumultuous return to a new normal. Your Presidential Team & Representatives have taken on your concerns and are working together with the Doctoral College to ensure information is as clear and straightforward as possible. Although clear communication is no panacea to troubles you may be facing, transparency can lead to better understanding and adjustments of support for where it is needed most. We hope it will go some way to allaying concerns and answering questions you may have.
Extensions and financial hardship are understandably of vital importance for our community. You may want to know if you are eligible for support, and if so, what the process entails; or question the reasons or rationale behind the decision making; or just want to feel assured that the process is a fair one for all Doctoral Researchers. With these concerns in mind, we asked the Doctoral College for further clarification over extensions and what level of support is being given. Moreover, how this is being treated fairly across potentially more disadvantaged groups and what actions are taken to ensure equal treatment, and how assessment into rectification occurs. We received a lengthy, helpful, and informative response from the Doctoral College, and we wish to share it with you today:
“The current pandemic has had an impact across the University community, not least Doctoral Researchers, and we have been proactive in taking steps to support the wellbeing and ease financial and other concerns of many of our Doctoral Researchers. We recognise that no two doctoral programmes are the same, and no two researchers are the same, and so the impacts on individuals are inevitably varied in nature.
Any student can apply for an extension to their registration period using the mitigating circumstance process. We are hugely sympathetic to the difficulties that our 1400+ PhD students are facing due to the pandemic but, like all Universities, we are operating in very challenging financial times with very uncertain income streams. That said, the University has already paid out over £22,500 to PhD students this year due to Covid-19 via the hardship fund which is a 188% increase on hardship fund payments made to this group of students last academic year.
To date, both UKRI and the University have had to prioritise doctoral researchers whose funding ends soonest (up to 31 March 2021) because this group have likely been most severely impacted by the pandemic and have had less opportunity to alter their research plans to mitigate against any negative impacts from lockdown, this is also in-line with UKRI’s window for stipend extension eligibility, so is broadly in-line with the approach across the sector. Those who are in receipt of a stipend from UKRI/LU, and where their funding ended/ends March 2020-March 2021, have had the opportunity to present a case for a stipend extension. We have agreed a substantial amount to University funded PhD students in additional stipend payments and fee waivers.
We are undertaking an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) of the stipend extensions process and decisions, which was weighted favourably towards those with caring responsibilities and those with physical/mental health impacts. The EIA will include ethnicity as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, and should we identify any disproportionate impact or unfair treatment, please be assured that we will take steps to address this. Similarly, if any disproportionate impact or unfair treatment is identified with regard to the other protected characteristics actions will be taken to remedy this. In considering cases for stipend extensions and extensions to registration periods, factors such as research project mitigation plans, wellbeing and caring responsibilities have been taken into consideration. Where international/EU students have returned to their home countries, they have been supported to continue to study remotely and additional welfare checks have been put in place via the Doctoral College Office. We also recently offered a one-to-one wellbeing call with flexible engagement options to make this as open to all constituent groups within our DR community as possible.
I understand from our conversation that there is some concern for externally-funded students who are in receipt of scholarships from overseas, and that they would like some support with understanding what the future funding position is likely to be in light of Covid. Where individuals have specific concerns, such as if their stipend is directly paid by a sponsor and this hasn’t arrived, they should contact the Doctoral College directly. Where students are encountering financial difficulties we strongly recommend they utilise the hardship fund, which is a safety net for all of our students. We will discuss within the Doctoral College whether there is more we can do to advise international researchers with external funding, and will always do our best to support individual students where they raise specific concerns with us.”
We have also received additional clarification on the manner in which BAME and international students can, or should be able to, access assistance and information; the relevant response is below:
“additional checks were put in place for Tier 4 students who were based outside of the UK for longer than the 60 day period which is usually permitted by the UKVI. This was to enable us to check on welfare but also to specifically offer reassurance about the visa status of these DRs (i.e we could continue to sponsor remotely if the DRs remained engaged with their research).
We didn’t complete other checks based on location during lockdown, but instead worked with School administrators to check all DRs had supervisory meetings recorded in Co-tutor during the initial lockdown period. We asked Schools to follow up on any cases ASAP if there were concerns that a DR and their supervisory were not in contact. The feedback was very reassuring in that contact between supervisors and DRs was still taking place regularly via remote means.
We are currently working on the communications that will support the registration and re-registration process for this year. This will include some specific messaging for those based overseas who are intending on returning to campus. At this stage, it’s likely we’ll identify relevant students via the home address they have provided in the self -service portal so we can send some targeted information (including self-isolation procedures etc).”
The Presidential Team have been having discussions with the DCO on how best contact and raise such concerns directly. If you have not received the support you need, or worried about your financial position, or have not been aware of anything mentioned above, please email in the first instance Doctoralcollege@lboro.ac.uk to organise a 1:1 session.
Any Doctoral Researcher is always able to contact your Lead Reps and Presidential Team for support in these matters, and if you require a chaperone or any other assistance please get in contact with the emails supplied at the bottom. Further to this we would like to share some links as a reminder in which you can access current support systems:
Please also note that the UKRI, as of 20/08/2020, have stated that international students are now eligible for UKRI funding, as per their news piece: UKRI-funded postgraduate programmes to open to international student
We hope that this response alleviates some of the transparency concerns on finances for the Doctoral Researcher community and what assistance is available, and how this is being treated for matters of equality. If you have any additional concerns or questions, please get in touch.
This blog post has been put together by the Presidential Team (Thomas Baker and Rieman Rudra) in collaboration with the Doctoral College and the Doctoral Lead Representative for the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Nathan Ritchie.
Thomas Baker, DR President – T.E.BAKER@LBORO.AC.UK
Rieman Rudra, DR Vice-President – R.RUDRA@LBORO.AC.UK
Nathan Ritchie, SoSSH DR Lead Representative – N.RITCHIE@LBORO.AC.UK