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Board member news

An update for our postgraduate research students

8 July 2020
Kim Graham and Claire Morgan

Dear all

Following our communication to you in June, we wanted to update you on what we have been doing over the past month to support our postgraduate research students further. This includes work helping our research community start a safe return to campus, as well as the processes we have developed to administer and assess applications for funded extensions. 

Accessing research facilities at the University

Following the implementation of phase one, in which we managed to safely and carefully return over 280 researchers back to the University (including some postgraduate research students), I am pleased to tell you that on Monday 22 June, University senior management agreed that we can start to progress work to implement phase two.

How will phase two work?

In phase two decision-making about who can return to campus buildings has been devolved to Schools. There will be oversight via the University Research Infrastructure Group to ensure we continue to take a slow and cautious approach to returning researchers to University buildings, with the aim of continuing to keep staff and research students safe. 

Criteria for phase two

We have developed a set of criteria for prioritisation of research. These are important as social distancing requirements, and the need to open the University’s estate in a staggered manner, means that not all researchers can go back to the University immediately. 

The criteria are designed to help identify those staff and postgraduate research students at most urgent need of access to facilities, and will involve consideration of the following needs, with further information available on the intranet:

  • Research that involves early career researchers and postgraduate research students, especially those who are facing critical challenges to their future research and career outcomes if research is not restarted
  • Inability to work remotely on a project  
  • Imminent end date of research experiments / data collection, with limited opportunity for revision of plans or future research delivery
  • Access to facilities needed imminently due to revision of research plans, inability to access facilities/equipment in other national or international laboratories or due to being part of an integrated research team 
  • Likely significant disruption to future research delivery if not starting or continuing research (either as part of a long-term research programme within an existing award or aligned to applications in submission/being submitted or potential visa/funding issues for overseas researchers)
  • Need for access to facilities aligned to seasonal or time-specific research, with likely significant disruption to research if not provided aligned to research time-specific needs
  • Externally funded grant likely to be disrupted

Complementing this work, we are looking at ways in which human participant research and activity can be reintroduced safely. Whilst some clinical trials have continued through necessity, we now need to develop guidelines to expand our ability to engage with patients and participants across the University. We do run some clinics on behalf of the NHS and a process has now been developed and agreed to facilitate their reintroduction, via close working with the relevant Academic Schools.

Health and Safety

The health and safety of our research community remains paramount during this phase, including adherence to social distancing rules, public health regulations, laws, and guidance. 

Building risk assessments are being drafted for those buildings being reoccupied and a Building User Guide is also being developed to support individuals’ understanding of how the building functions and expected behaviours while on site. 

It has been a difficult few months for our research community, and all of us are keen to get back to familiar surroundings and benefit from the intellectual stimulation of working on research together.  This process will take time to implement over the next few weeks and months, and not all our staff or postgraduate research students will be able to return at the same time.  We would be grateful if you can be patient with your Academic School as they start the work to understand how to ensure safe working in research labs and facilities and decide how to best support staff and students, focusing initially on those with the greatest need. 

Find out more about how phase two will be managed and implemented.

Funding Extensions 

We know that the Covid-19 pandemic may have caused disruption to your research plans. 

Funding extensions are now available for final year students whose funded period ends between 1 March 2020 and 31 March 2021, who receive a stipend either funded, or administered, by the University, and whose research studies have been significantly disrupted by Covid-19.  

These extensions will be awarded on a case-by case basis and only where there has been significant disruption caused by Covid-19, and more time is essential for the completion of the thesis. Extensions of up to three months will be assessed against a set of criteria that consider the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on an individual’s research.

In order to manage demand and ensure those in most urgent need are processed first, the University will be assessing and granting funding extensions in rounds. Round one will be for those students whose funding ends between March and November 2020.

Unfortunately, we are unable to offer blanket funded extensions for all postgraduate research students, as the pandemic has (and will continue to have) a significant financial impact on the University.

Before you request an extension, you should talk to your supervisor/s about how your research has been impacted by Covid-19 and whether an extension is required in order to bring your work to completion at doctoral standard. 

Information about how to apply for an extension and the criteria we are using to assess applications is available on the intranet.

Financial Assistance Programme

Postgraduate research students who are not eligible for funded extensions but who are experiencing financial hardship, can access the University’s Financial Assistance Programme which provides means-tested payments to support students facing financial hardship.

No-cost three month extensions for all postgraduate research students

In March we took the decision to consider no-cost extension requests on a case by case basis for those of you whose submission deadline was approaching (30 September or earlier). This was designed to support students whose research studies were potentially delayed due to our rapid move into the COVID-19 lockdown.

We now have a clearer picture of the sorts of disruption our postgraduate research students are experiencing.  While you are encouraged to work with your supervisors on adapting your research plans to mitigate against the impact of COVID-19 so that your research can continue and, where possible, conclude within your original schedule, we know that you may be anxious about delivering your thesis to your planned timeline.

To help with this, we have now agreed that postgraduate research students who are currently registered (since April 2020 and including the thesis-awaited stage) will have their regulatory time limit extended by three months:  this is an unfunded extension and will be an automatic change to your student record. If you find that you need a further extension beyond this, you can apply in the normal way.

If your submission deadline has already been adjusted due to an extension or interruption application, you will also get the automatic extension. 

The automatic extension of three months applies to all research degree programmes (full-time and part-time) with the exception of professional doctorates, which include substantive taught elements. Professional doctorate students should continue to request extensions to their thesis submission deadline at an appropriate time and in the usual way. 

Collecting possessions and equipment from campus

Working from home will continue to be the default position for those who do not need to come to campus to deliver their research and teaching. 

We are working to put a process in place to enable postgraduate research students to come and collect possessions and equipment from campus buildings, where necessary. Further information about this will be provided shortly.

Teaching update

You will be aware that due to public health restrictions, the University has committed to providing a blended approach to its education provision in 2020/21. This means that there will be some on-campus teaching activity (such as labs, clinical and small group teaching) which will be supplemented with high-quality online provision.

As a University we remain committed to providing you with opportunities for supporting the teaching experience.  We are currently reviewing our requirements for teaching support for next year and we hope to share our plans in this regard in due course.  Please be assured that where you have opportunities to teach, on campus or online, you will be given training and support in preparedness for this experience. 

We hope this update is useful for you. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions, either via (Kim Graham) or (Claire Morgan). Your College Postgraduate Deans and Directors of Postgraduate Research can also provide help and advice as needed.