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Officer Updates & Blogs

Postgraduate Officer

Blog: Charlotte Boulton, Postgraduate Officer 

A bigger, better PhD funding scheme *COVID-19 Impact Funding Scheme Update*

The new and improved COVID-19 Impact Funding Scheme

I'm really pleased to share the details of the updated COVID-19 Impact Funding Scheme for PGRs (formerly known as the COVID-19 Impact Scholarship Scheme). Since December, when myself and Sian the Education Officer shared some of our proposals for a 'Near Miss Policy', I have been lobbying the University to improve their funding scheme to support PGRs with stipend support. I had previously spoken to senior staff at the University about concerns some students were having with needing financial and temporal support but not being eligible for the scheme, and felt it was too limiting. Whilst many of our proposals became part of the Safety Net Policy or were implemented separately for postgraduates, more significant changes were needed for the funded extension scheme.

The University have been working on changes for the last few months, and I have had significant input into these changes, which were also brought to the PGR Sub-Committee of the University Education Committee, where multiple PGR School Representatives saw a draft of the updated scheme. The new and improved COVID-19 Impact Funding Scheme is now live and accepting applications for funding support. The submission deadline for the first main cycle of applications is Tuesday 6th April 2021 - so if you need financial support now, please do check out the updates and make an application as soon as you can.

What's changed and what did I fight for?

There have been a lot of significant changes to the scheme, directly as a result of my lobbying and raising awareness of the concerns students have shared with me. I am proud to have played a role in opening up the scheme to more students and ensuring there is far more flexibility and opportunities to apply for funding. 

  • The scheme was previously known as a Scholarship Scheme, and has been renamed to the COVID-19 Impact Funding Scheme, at my suggestion.
    • This change may seem small but it's important to make clear what the scheme is intended for. These aren't scholarships, they are funding support for PGRs, and this clarity is key so students know what they can apply for and what they could be receiving.
  • The funding scheme is open to applications from eligible Home, EU and International research students. 
    • This is one of the broadest cohorts eligible for funding from any University PGR COVID-19 funding scheme currently, which is great. 
  • The funding scheme is open to applications from self-funded students.
    • It's great that the University will support self-funded students, who may find themselves in unexpected financial difficulties due to COVID-19, and I encourage any eligible self-funded student to apply.
  • The scheme will normally provide stipend support for up to 12 weeks. However, applications for longer periods of stipend support (up to 26 weeks) will be considered in cases where a student has made limited progress towards their degree, as a consequence of COVID-19, for longer than 12 weeks. 
    • This is a really significant change and I hope it means those students with additional challenges and more complex situations can access the extra funding period that they need. Particularly for parents and carers, disabled students or students who have had key research activities severely impacted, this is a welcome opportunity to access more funding.
  • If your minimum candidate ends at a time outside of the time period listed and you have no other source of funding, you can still apply and applications will be considered outside of the usual application rounds.
    • This change from being limited to only the end dates listed, to being more flexible, is something that is very important to students whose situations don't fall into the 'normal' category. If the end of your minimum candidature has already passed and you need funding support, apply now and your application will be considered.
  • The scheme will be reviewed in September 2021 to assess how best to provide support to any research students whose minimum candidature ends after 1st April 2022. 
    • This was one of the main issues I raised with the University in early conversations, as we must acknowledge the pandemic will continue to impact researchers for the next few years to come. I am confident that the incoming Postgraduate Officer, Eleanor, will be able to represent the best interests of PGRs in September and ensure the review process finds the best outcomes to support all of our research students.
  • For students who can demonstrate need and have no other source of stipend funding available, they can apply to the scheme, including those whose funding body already provides stipend support for more than 3 years and those whose funding body has already agreed to fund a specific extension. 
    • This is a significant improvement and means that students who were excluded from consideration in the first version of the scheme now have the opportunity to apply for consideration. If you have already received a funding extension from your funding body (e.g. UKRI) but you are not eligible for any further funding from your original funding body, you can apply to this scheme and your application will be considered.
  • The need to submit evidence of your eligibility has been removed. Students only need to submit a Supporting Statement and do not need to submit any additional evidence.
    • This is a significant and important change as one of the key concerns I've heard from students is the administrative and emotional burden on submitting evidence for extension applications. The process has been simplified as far as possible, to a 150-word maximum statement from the student and a 150-word maximum statement from their supervisor or School PGR Director. All references to evidence have been removed, and the criteria document now only suggests potential reasons that students may want to mention to explain the impact of COVID-19 on themselves and their research.
  • The student's supervisor does not have to be the person to submit a supporting statement. The School's PGR Director or an Insitute PGRSC can provide information in support of the application if the student prefers. 
    • This change was made after feedback from students who felt uncomfortable relying on a supervisor to provide a supporting statement. Some students prefer to discuss funding extensions and wellbeing concerns with other members of staff, so there is added flexibility in who can provide information to support the application.
  • Eligible students can make a further application for financial support if their circumstances have changed since their first application or there is a continuation of pre-existing circumstances related to COVID-19. The limit of financial support across applications would be limited to a total of no more than 26 weeks (6 months).
    • ?I am really happy about this change, as I know some students received funding support earlier in the academic year but felt this wasn't sufficient, and as time has moved on, may still be experiencing difficulties. By allowing students the opportunity to apply again, I hope the most impacted students have additional opportunities to access support. If you have already applied for and received financial support from the scheme, and still feel you are eligible, please make another application and request further support.
  • If you are awarded funding and the length of the funding period goes beyond your current thesis submission deadline, the Doctoral College will automatically approve an extension to your thesis submission deadline to align with the end of the funding period awarded.
    • This change removes some of the administrative burden from students in the most difficult situations, which is a very welcome change. It's important to note that if you are awarded funding and the length of the funded period does not go beyond your current thesis submission deadline, no automatic extension will be approved. In these cases, if you require a time extension to your thesis submission deadline, you can apply for a fee-free extension of up to 3 months in the first instance,with a further 3 months available if your progress continues to be disrupted. This is done through ePortfolio in the usual way.
  • Language has been amended throughout the scheme to allow for greater flexibility and understanding of the nuanced and individual circumstances PGRs are trying to research in. This is reflected in the new ability to consider applications from groups who would normally have been exempt from funding, as there is built-in flexibility in the application process. 

What about blanket extensions?

Since the 'Lobby the University to urgently provide both financial and non-financial support to postgraduate research students impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic' motion passed at Student Council in January, I have been lobbying tirelessly for blanket funding and time extensions to be given to all PGR students. I have met with key university staff multiple times, wrote and presented a detailed document of arguments and prospective costings and been consistently bringing up the issues at every possible meeting, including at regular Executive Board meetings. I have collaborated with PGRs and the PG UCU to gather student opinion and seek solutions. I have done all I possibly can to push for blanket extensions and I believe I have fulfilled my mandate of seeking this blanket financial support from the University.

However, the University are not able to implement a blanket funding extension policy for PGRs and I believe I have exhausted all options of trying to make this happen. In our discussions, they have expressed that it is not possible to offer a blanket approach to all PGRs for various reasons; PGRs have individualised circumstances, not all PGRs have been impacted by COVID-19 in the same way and not all PGRs want the same level of financial and non-financial support. I have been persistent in my requests for the most flexible, empathetic and generous support possible, and I do feel that the changes to the COVID-19 Impact Funding Scheme do resolve many of the issues raised in the council motion and by students individually. 

I know some students really wanted blanket support for additional reassurance and a reduced administrative burden. I know an application process isn't ideal for some students, but I do think the University has simplified the process as much as possible and made the eligibility criteria more flexible so more students can access the funding. The University have taken on board many of my suggestions and concerns and these have directly led to the many significant changes to the funding scheme; it may not be perfect, but it is a lot easier to access now and can potentially help many more students, which is what matters most.

 

If anyone has any further questions about the scheme, please direct them to doctoralcollege@ncl.ac.uk. 

Please do make your application if you are eligible. There is funding available, so make as much use out of it as possible.

 

In solidarity with PGRs always,

Charlotte 

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