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Is post-graduate research a ‘middle-class’ sport?

UPDATE

30th November 2020




There have been several communications to TEFS pointing out things missed by the original article below.

Firstly, because most postgraduate researchers and not employed, they are not in a pension scheme and do not contribute to national insurance. That makes them cheaper graduate labour for research.  Secondly, many other countries employ their postgraduate researchers for longer than three years and this can be can be up to five years. Thirdly, exceptions are medical graduates in the UK who are employed when doing a PhD or MD.

Posting 20th November 2020

Hidden in media reports dominated by the US president’s election, COVID crisis, and the inevitable BREXIT chaos, came some very disturbing news about ongoing support for postgraduate research students. It seems there will be no automatic funding to allow for extensions of their projects coming from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Their ‘UKRI COVID-19 phase 2 doctoral extension funding policy’ has come as a major blow to students struggling to keep their research going. 

The implications for social mobility and ‘levelling up’ are profound and will reverse slow advances made over many years. More alarming is this statement on the UKRI www site ‘Doctoral students advised to adjust projects for COVID-19’ from Professor Rory Duncan, UKRI Director of Talent and Skills, “Altering the outputs of your work or changing the data you work with as a result of the pandemic does not diminish the standard of your doctoral education”. This is so unprofessional it beggars belief. In fact an open letter condemning the approach by UKRI has now been signed by 1127 academics at the last count. There must be more consideration for students working to secure the future of all of us. 

What is middle class? 

This seems to be an outdated definition that is still in use and, in terms of perception, is like the shifting sands. It often depends on which angle it is viewed from. The observation “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” has been quoted often in various forms but its origin is obscure. Here privilege or ‘middle class’ is considered in simple terms of access to resources and accumulated capital. The one thing the government will not fix. Those with such advantages can be considered to be privileged. The idea of ‘working class’ is steeped in the notion of relative poverty and less privilege. This might include those on low pay or who rely on benefits such as universal credit and free school meals. They may be supported by the state to some extent, but many others are above the level to qualify for help with education but still lack enough income or capital to be secure. Their objective is surviving. 

The ‘middle class’ have higher incomes, tend to be from professional or better off management positions and have accumulated their own capital and inherited family wealth. Their objective is to ensure the same opportunities for their children, and they have planned for that. The support given by the government to post-graduate students is largely offering incentives to the better off from a ‘middle class’ perspective. 

Qualified support. 

The circumstances under which some UKRI funds could be made available are very limited and the burden of supporting those PhD researchers missing a lot of their research time will fall on already hard-pressed universities. There is considerable disquiet about the implications of this move. It seems the government has observed PhD research as a largely ‘middle class’ activity that has few takers from disadvantaged or low-income families willing to take or afford the financial risk. In May, a report by Ginevra House ‘Postgraduate Education in the UK’, covering 2008/9 to 2017/18, showed how the more advantaged from high participation areas dominate the post-graduate researcher population. As a result, the government will expect their families to support their increasingly adult offspring further at this time. Those for whom this advantage is impossible will take the biggest hit to their careers. 

It is not just about ‘passing’ a PhD. In the REF ridden era, there is more expected in terms of publications and outputs to secure academic positions. Being ‘REFable’ dominates current thinking. Achieving this takes much longer than the three years funded by UKRI. Those with family backing are at an advantage as they are supported through the transition. Eating further into the time available without family support will exclude many from an academic career. Academia is already populated mostly by the ‘middle classes’ although more from lower income backgrounds have entered via the PhD research route over time. The latest move risks reversing this modest advance and will exclude a whole generation of less advantaged from a career in academia. 

Funding of PhDs and its consequences was covered in much more detail by TEFS in May with ‘Levelling down’ and a post-graduate boost for those of greater means’

The UKRI position. 

In its ‘Review of Extensions for Students Impacted by COVID-19’ UKRI decided not to continue with automatic project funding extensions from now on. Instead, it has recommended “additional funding also be used, on a needs-priority basis and once project adaptation and mitigation has been fully explored”. This was despite the obvious impact on those excluded from their laboratories at critical stages of their research and regardless of their personal circumstances. Support for the disadvantaged is concentrated on those with disabilities. Others who are taking a financial risk with loans, or with little family support, will find the going tough. Whilst acknowledging “The economic impact of the pandemic is putting severe strains on university finances and on the co-funders of doctoral programmes and students” it seems universities are expected to take on the burden of supporting research students through the next period. 

One reason UKRI might have taken this step may lie in the universities complaining about coming under increasing financial stress. Consider that they are also funding, or co-founding, studentships outside of the UKRI system and more support from UKRI for their students may not be matched by family or universities for the other students. There are also many who fund their own PhDs using non means tested loans (Funding for postgraduate study). This is currently £26,445 paid directly to the student for the whole PhD period. Clearly this is not enough, and family support is also needed. Those lacking other means are effectively excluded at this point unless they get the highly competitive funding from UKRI. 

Why UKRI is vital for research. 

UKRI is an overarching body that brought together the various UK research councils that fund research, across the UK in universities and other research institutions and centres, in 2018. Overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), its ‘Corporate Plan 2020-21’ aims to “develop an equality, diversity and inclusion programme that will deliver a research and innovation system for everyone, by everyone”. The irony will not have escaped notice. 

They are central to maintaining innovative research and a supply of highly trained researchers. The central pillar of this activity is support for PhD students. If the government is serious about involving those from all walks of life in moulding our future, then the most talented researchers must be at the core of this aspiration. We expect to lead in science, technology, and medical advances and to be world leaders in the green economy and environmental technology. UKRI must also include culture and arts, heritage, and history alongside social development. It is a government agency whose influence is profound and sends ripples well into the future and beyond our time. 

Equality, diversity, and inclusion. 

Those at UKRI are alert to the issues posed by ensuring equality, diversity, and inclusion. They see it as a “critical aspect of a healthy research culture” that should be “for everyone, by everyone”. This policy is seen by them to include “The whole workforce are key contributors in the research and innovation system – from the lead researcher or innovator, to those who keep the lights on”. 

They commissioned two reports on the issue in 2019. One ‘Equality, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation: UK review’ and the other ‘Equality, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation: international review’. The international review was carried out in a similar manner to the UK review and at 97 pages is a comprehensive overview of practice and ‘intervention’ across other countries, particularly the USA. Of interest to TEFS is the state of the UK in this respect and covered in the UK review. This is also a comprehensive 100-page report gathering evidence from the literature and submissions. Emphasis is placed on the role of academics in leading research and the obvious biases in gender and ethnicity. These are real problems that impact upon careers and the pattern of grants awarded. There is little consideration of the role that bias in the career ‘entry ticket’, the PhD, plays in fostering equality and diversity. This is somewhat strange since there are clearly barriers in deterring talented students from postgraduate research. It is acknowledged that initiatives such as “Athena SWAN had a limited impact on postgraduate students and did not yet address challenges among undergraduate students”. Some initiatives were seen as not very effective and even a “failure to reach certain audiences, such as postgraduate students”. 

It is also odd that the report notes “Socio-economic status was only discussed in two sources and was not the primary focus of these works.” This is likely to be a major bottleneck in getting on the ladder via a PhD qualification and beyond, so should not be ignored. 

There is acknowledgement elsewhere that there are fewer PhD researchers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and certain ethnic groups. To this end, the Office for Students launched, along with Research England, in October a ‘New fund to improve postgraduate research participation and access’. It represents a substantial investment of £8 million for research to improve access. However, it is not as wide-ranging as the title implies. Instead it looks to investigate the widest gap in “access to and participation in postgraduate research study (PGR) for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students”. 

The shocking underrepresentation of black, Asian and minority ethnic students at postgraduate level explains the emphasis on tackling this as a priority. However, it may simply conclude that those students encounter greater financial barriers to stop them proceeding beyond graduate level education. 

This emphasis is based upon a sperate report from the OfS in October that looked at the characteristics of ‘Postgraduate research students at high tariff providers’. Its limitation to the high tariff providers is because they are the so called ‘elite’ universities that are research intensive and have a much larger population of PhD students. The analysis is valuable because it combines data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) student records the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) Individualised Learner Record (ILR)6 for the academic years. It covers the period from 2010-11 to 2017-18. However, current HESA records on the 2018/19 students paint a similar picture. 

The underrepresentation has been around for a long time. 

An earlier study from 2010 by Paul Wakeling and Chris Kyriacou of the University of York, ‘Widening Participation from Undergraduate to Postgraduate Research Degrees’ observed a very similar pattern of access, with under representation by lower socioeconomic classes stretching back to at least 2001. One reason they thought this was ingrained in the system was because “it remains the case that around 50 per cent of postgraduate research students are found in Russell Group institutions (with around a third concentrated in just eight institutions)”. This is still the general trend that is continually fed by selective input of the vast majority of competitive research funding into the research-intensive universities through the Research Excellence Framework. The current round of funding will probably roll into the new REF round arising from the upcoming REF2021. The result is investment becomes heavily concentrated in a small group of institutions and the REF system makes sure this continues well into the future. 

The consequences for access to PhD positions from a wider range of students is seen in their other observation that there may be an ”‘escalator’ effect – caused by the greater proportion of students from more affluent socio-economic groups found in the undergraduate intake to many Russell Group institutions”. Although some improvements have been made in this respect, these have been very small, and it remains a major factor in the outcome at postgraduate student level. The system is self-perpetuating and difficult for graduates outside of the research elite to break into. 

TEFS asked in August 2018 ‘Is the Government admitting to failure of its Social Mobility Measures? The progress in ten years’. The answer was that there is a persistent and startling gap in the intake of students from more low participation areas across our universities. While the overall numbers have risen, the relative chances for less advantaged students remained almost static. Add this to the decreased chances of entering postgraduate research positions and it magnifies the effect. 

The PhD ‘entry ticket’. 

The entry point to a career as an academic, and science in particular, is at the point of starting a PhD research studentship. This means any bias in the postgraduate intake will constantly feed through to a narrower spectrum of academic staff. Coming from a relatively poor ‘working class’ background, it becomes apparent from the outset. The whole setting ‘smells’ of advantage and the comfortable background of most of your colleagues. 

My experience is in laboratory science and I will concentrate on that. However, it is likely every discipline presents its own pressures to a similar extent. 

After starting a PhD research project, it becomes a ‘race against time’ (or RAT) to complete the laboratory work within three years, when the funding dries up. It can then take up to at least a further twelve months to complete the write up and hopefully pass. Those making the decision to start on this route must make a momentous life-changing decision and then see it through. Not everyone stays the course, and some drop out of the RAT race exhausted and disillusioned. The intense pressure, anxiety and workload exceeds anything they endured as an undergraduate and often exceeds anything they might have expected. 

The financial implications. 

It seems that the central role of finances and family support is skirted around too often. It is still the case that, having made it through a system that generally accumulates the disadvantages from primary school to A-levels or Highers, entering postgraduate research is a major financial risk. In science, it becomes brutally apparent that the work hours expected totally excludes reliance on a part-time job. 

Earlier this year in January, TEFS looked more closely at how postgraduate students are financed in ‘The postgraduate premium formula is not for all’. This comparative analysis came on the back of a short Scottish Funding Council report that looked at ‘Access to postgraduate study - representation and destinations: discussion paper’ that also used Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data up to 2016/17 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey

The UKRI pay for living expenses is offered in the form of a grant or ‘stipend’. 

In most cases, UKRI offers the “minimum ‘stipend’ of £15,285 per year” for living costs. Bearing in mind PhD students work out of term time for at least 45 weeks each year, and often work well over 40 hours per week to succeed, then the pay seems very low indeed. But it is not ‘employment’ as such and is outside of employment law protections. If it was classed as employment things would be different. The current living wage is £9.30 per hour (£10.75 per hour in London). If this were applied to students working a 40 hour week, the stipend would need to come to around £16,740 per year (£19,350 in London) Most work many more hours, often up to 60 hours per week, and should receive around £25,000 per year (£29,000 in London). Students intent on succeeding with both thesis and publications in science realise quickly that they must work long hours. That they are our best graduates, and the main workhorses of science and innovation, but payed below the living wage, seems to elude the government. 

The current policy on support comes as a major blow. It is worth looking more closely at the current ‘UKRI Students and training grants guidance. Updated 11th November 2020’.There it clearly states “In the current situation, extensions to the submission period are allowed at the discretion of the RO, but, consistent with our position on submission outside the funded period, no funding will be available for this”. With no fair pay, no furlough, and almost impossible demands, it seems to many that the system is heavily stacked against those with little other means of support. It is possible for PhD students to supplement their income with some teaching duties. However, this is at the expense of losing time for research. In the current crisis, even this income has dried up for most. 

The UKRI and government policy only pays lip service to the notion of ‘levelling up’. This is not ‘levelling up’, it is suppression of those with fewer advantages. It is not incompetent or thoughtless either, it is deliberate and fits the pattern set by the government over this year.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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