Covid-19: Has the UK government failed PhD students?

PhD student; books

The Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected all walks of life. However, no more so than university students. All major newspapers and media highlighted the way in which the pandemic caused a completely unsustainable position in terms of undergraduate admissions and their study over the course of the past four months. However, the plight of PhD students has largely been ignored.

There has been little government intervention to safeguard a doctoral student’s professional and personal life. PhD students not only contribute to research and development in the UK, but in many cases bear the burden of undergraduate teaching. Doctoral students have one of the highest rates of mental health issues as their work is not only solitary in nature but often demanding and time-pressured. The most vulnerable group among doctoral students are those who are international and dependent on scholarships.

Looking back in anger? Initiation of the uncertainties

Last year, the lockdown in March 2020 created much uncertainty. Thousands of students in the UK were advised to go back home. Most students followed the instructions and returned to their home countries. While some international students decided to stay back in the UK, some were held in the UK as part of the residential requirement of the scholarship they had been awarded. What issued later was inevitable and is now clearly known to us. The worldwide lockdown curtailed movement and closed borders to international and domestic travel. Public spaces, libraries, archives, schools, colleges, and universities went into a complete shutdown. Later, most educational spaces resumed work remotely. Students were immediately left without a clue about what kind of future ensued:

How would they complete their project? How would they start a PhD amidst the pandemic? Would an extension be granted? Would funding be available for the extension? How would they handle the post-pandemic job market?

Photograph: No.10/Flickr

Several such questions gnawed the mental health of Phd students. While in the United States, several universities ceased accepting PhD applications owing to the lack of funds caused by COVID-19.  In the UK, PhD offers were made without any guarantee for funding or scholarship. PhD students as a community have always been vulnerable to isolation and depression and the pandemic has immensely added to it. The UK government and the Higher Education Department has failed to provide additional mental and financial support to the community. 

Speaking of SOAS, the institute has allowed tuition remission for those seeking extension. However, SOAS has, to date, given no guarantee to PhD students about scholarship or funding for the extended years of study. This creates a uniquely difficult position for doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities who must undertake fieldwork abroad.

Pandemic-related lockdowns and travel bans have prevented access to archives, libraries, and ethnography among vulnerable communities. The worst case of neglect on part of the UK government has been to not issue a directive regarding student housing. International PhD students who have been forced to their home countries are in many cases being forced to pay rent for empty accommodations. While several universities such as Oxford and Cambridge have declared rent remissions, many private student accommodation providers, such as UNITE of Sanctuary Students, are forcing students to pay for empty rooms.

Where are we now? 

The emergence of the new variant of COVID-19 in the UK has created alarm worldwide. Over the last year, the academic community has continuously questioned the UK government’s inclination to resume face-to-face teaching at the schools, colleges, and the universities in the UK. The opening of schools reflected discontent among the teaching community. The opening of the UK borders to allow international students into the country to start classes by being in residence had raised several eyebrows. There seemed to be no necessity in forcing students to come to the UK and pay accommodation rent as the classes continue to be online. With resources like reading spaces, libraries, and archives under closure caused by abrupt shift in tiers and sudden lockdowns continue to create financial burdens on the students and their families.

The saddest part is, though the Prime Minister’s speech in early January contained instructions about the closure of schools, it evaded instructions for universities. This again creates confusion and escalates the uncertainty. Though the lockdown is a necessity to safeguard public health, the decision came a bit too late—UK recorded the highest daily total number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic on 4th January 2021. Followed by the record rise in numbers of daily infections—which continues to this day.  In light of this, it is imperative to ask what safety-net is available or will be made available for the PhD students whose projects will be inevitable delayed given the trying times?

Amrita DasGupta is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and is currently doing a PhD in Gender Studies. You can find her with her cats on Instagram @minminloo_mommom.

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