Board member news

An update for our postgraduate research students from Pro Vice-Chancellors

Kim Graham and Claire Morgan

Dear all

Following on from the Vice-Chancellor’s prior communication, we wanted to thank you for your continuing patience with our move to remote working due to the Covid-19 University lockdown. We know that this situation has created uncertainties for you, and in some cases impacted on research work, such as data collection, access to laboratories, study visits and recruitment of new participants into studies. It was critical for us to take this step so we could ensure your safety, as well as that of our staff and research participants, aligned to national efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19. 

Now we are starting to see a fall in cases, and thankfully deaths, from Covid-19, we wished to write and update you on the steps that we have already put in place to support our postgraduate research students, as well as those we will be looking to develop, and implement moving forward.

Support measures already implemented

As we moved rapidly into lockdown in March, we recognised the need to make changes to the way we worked to provide immediate support for our postgraduate research students. These included:

Hardship Funds: Ensuring that postgraduate research students could easily access the University’s Financial Assistance Programme which provides means-tested payments to support students facing financial hardship.

Vivas: Allowing electronic submission of theses and offering postgraduate research students the opportunity to hold PhD vivas online if they wished, ensuring no delay in the completion of their studies. These online events have worked really well, and we are now considering how we might continue to offer this option to students in the future, as required.

Annual Progress Monitoring: The Annual Progress Monitoring forms across the University were revised, for the following two reasons:

First, we wished to ensure that all postgraduate research students continued to have effective academic and personal support while working remotely. This included helping you to revise your research plans to mitigate against any potential impacts of Covid-19 on your studies, as well as providing input to support you in managing additional challenges such as caring responsibilities. 

Where there was an impact on critical data collection, we have encouraged a focus on other core parts of postgraduate study, including literature reading and reviews, training and new skills acquisition via online resources and writing up of research and / or chapters. This has allowed many of our postgraduate research students to progress their research, although we recognise that impacts on data collection and access to University libraries and facilities continue to worry you (see section on accessing facilities below). 

This latter concern underpinned the second reason for our change to annual progress monitoring, specifically so we could ensure you had the opportunity to report any impacts of Covid-19 on your studies. Throughout your time at Cardiff, we will continue to record any Covid-19-related impacts via your annual progress monitoring, ensuring ongoing discussions around alternative research plans, and giving us a good sense of the impact of Covid-19 on our postgraduate research community.

No-cost extensions: In response to requests from postgraduate research students, we changed our procedures to allow final year students, within six months of their submission deadline, to apply for a Covid-19-related, no-cost extension to their submission date of up to three months, where required.  This aimed to reduce any immediate concerns our postgraduate research students might have had about completion of their thesis to a challenging deadline, especially as we moved into remote working.

Webpages: We created specific pages for postgraduate researchers on our website, ensuring you could easily find information about the support we were putting in place to help you. We update these regularly, and they are a good source of information about all the work we are doing to help our postgraduate research students during this difficult time.

Future support measures in development

Now we are getting a better sense of what the next few months might look like for the University we are starting to consider other ways we can provide you with additional support. These include:

Accessing facilities: A phased return to laboratories has now been agreed by the University’s senior management team. The principles guiding that approach include: (a) ensuring staff and student safety; (b) returning researchers and postgraduate research students slowly to facilities, on a priority basis; and (c) building up the numbers of researchers at the University, while looking to balance teaching and research requirements in the Autumn term. As part of that work we will be looking specifically at how we can ensure support for our postgraduate research students, especially those of you who are at critical points in data collection in your PhD, and where access to University facilities is urgent.

Supportive assessment of final vivas: Given that we cannot easily return all staff and postgraduate research students to the University at this time, as well as the possibility of future disruption from Covid-19 (e.g., if there are further lockdown phases), we wish to ensure that the final viva for every postgraduate research student assesses what has been possible to progress while undertaking research during the pandemic. We are about to start work, therefore, on viva assessment approaches focusing on quality over quantity, aimed at supporting those postgraduate research students who have experienced major data collection impacts which cannot be easily rectified. We will be consulting with colleagues across the University, and postgraduate research students during this process.

Teaching: In the next academic term, we may need to adapt our learning and teaching provision to meet social distancing requirements.  This will include online provision to accompany classes held on the campus.  We are keen to ensure that postgraduate research students have opportunities to undertake teaching during the year, where it is safe for them to do so.  We will work with the College Postgraduate Deans to consider how best to provide those opportunities in a safe manner, and what additional training and support is needed to help you deliver high-quality teaching for our undergraduate students. Feedback and input from postgraduate research students who support our teaching will be vital in developing this approach.

Funded extensions: Some funders, such as UKRI and Wellcome Trust, have announced funded extensions for their final year PhD students. Final year in this context is defined as the funded period ending between 1 March 2020 and 31 March 2021. This support has created a situation where some postgraduate research students have access to funding to continue their studies, where they have had clear evidence of significant Covid-19-related impacts on their research, while University funded students at Cardiff University do not.

To address this disparity, the University’s senior management team has agreed to consider – on a case-by-case basis – funded extensions (of up to a maximum of three months) for eligible final year PhD students (whose funded period ends between 1 March 2020 and 31 March 2021, and where students are not able to obtain additional funding from their current funder). These funded extensions will be awarded to postgraduate research students who receive PhD stipends directly via the University, and who are not able to revise their research plans to account for Covid-19 and are facing a substantial challenge to the submission of their thesis without additional time to complete critical work. We are currently working on a process and set of criteria for assessment of these extensions, which we will provide soon.

For our 1st and 2nd year students, we will be looking to better understand the scale of the impact of Covid-19. This approach is in alignment with work that UKRI is currently undertaking on the 1st / 2nd year postgraduate research students that the Councils support. At the same time, we will continue to work hard to implement a range of other supportive measures for you, such as: (a) revised research plans; (b) monitoring of Covid-19-related impacts via annual progress monitoring; (c) supportive assessment in the final viva examination; as well as (d) continued access to hardship funds as required.

Lobbying Externally: We recognise that this is a challenging time for all our staff, postdoctoral researchers, as well as our postgraduate research students. Our research community has shown tremendous flexibility and resilience in a truly difficult situation, and we remain immensely grateful for your patience as we work with you to understand how best we can help you. As we have done from the start of the UK lockdown, we will continue to advocate to both funders and governments for additional financial support for research, placing us in a better position to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on our junior researchers.

Finally, our priority remains your wellbeing and safety, and so please do visit the information we have provided on our webpages which provide additional links and advice on wellbeing. It is also important to continue to have regular discussions with your supervisor around how to undertake your research remotely, and how you could revise your research plans to accommodate Covid-19-related disruption. In the meantime, please take care of yourselves, and your loved ones. We look forward to all being together at the University again when that is possible.

Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions, either via 
PVC-Research@cardiff.ac.uk (Kim Graham) or PVC-Education@cardiff.ac.uk (Claire Morgan). Your College Postgraduate Deans and Directors of Postgraduate Research are also available to help you, providing advice as needed, or helping direct you to other sources of information that will ensure you can continue to be successful in your studies.