Students' Union Council Notes
- That the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly affected the ability of all students, including research postgraduates (PGRs), to work effectively over the past 10 months and continues to do so. PGRs conduct over half of all research hours in the UK  and are thus critical for the sector as a whole and the research reputation of Newcastle University in particular.
- That Newcastle University recognised the impacts of Covid-19 on undergraduate students, and has sought to minimise these through actions including the previous “no detriment” policy and, more recently, automatic 7-day extensions to all assessed coursework .
- That staff on UK Research and Innovation (“UKRI”)  projects have been supported financially in recognition of these impacts: for example, staff whose salary is funded by these have the automatic right to a 3 month contract extension .
- That in contrast no equivalent blanket support has been provided for the 1,985  PGRs at Newcastle, who have fixed deadlines to complete their research, with very limited access to discretionary, 3-month unfunded extensions and a “Covid-19 Scholarship” . Many will lose their only financial means of survival if they interrupt studies.
- That UKRI commissioned a report into the disruption the pandemic caused to PGRs, finding that 77% of students required extensions averaging 5.1 months . UKRI chose to provide universities with funding that covered less than a quarter of the expected need. In addition, while UKRI are the largest funder of PGRs at Newcastle University, many are not eligible for this limited support: not only is it insufficient to cover expected need, it is also restricted to final year PhD students who are directly UKRI-funded and excludes other PGRs .
- That it is very difficult or even impossible for PGR students to pause to their research: they are not treated as employees, so cannot be furloughed; only those in their first 3 years are permitted to interrupt studies and doing so stops their stipend income; and interruptions are entirely at the University’s discretion.
- That marginalised PGR students including carers, parents, and disabled students have been disproportionately impacted by specific impacts of the pandemic, such as the closure of schools and working from home [9, 10]. Newcastle University has recognised the impact on staff, suggesting they speak to managers about adjusting their workload , but this is not an option for PGRs on fixed deadlines.
- That Newcastle University has a particular legal duty to these students, who are protected under the Equality Act 2010 , to proactively support them by i) making reasonable adjustments and ii) not creating additional burden with complex administrative procedures or requiring evidence that has already been submitted. This is particularly the case when many issues are common to all PGRs and could be resolved en-masse.
Students' Union Council Believes
- Students face clearly exceptional circumstances, with many PGRs believing they will struggle to successfully complete their research degrees without significant support from Newcastle University, which to date has not been forthcoming.
- Approximately 40 PGRs from across all three faculties have contacted NUSU Officers in the last two weeks alone to raise their concerns directly, with some (including parents and carers) facing imminent hardship.
- That processes for allocating support to Newcastle PGRs have so far not been “open, transparent and inclusive” as required by UKRI’s Equality Impact Assessment , with significant inconsistencies in support provided to date and no criteria circulated for allocation.
- Newcastle University must protect the next generation of researchers by providing urgent financial and non-financial support to all PGRs regardless of stage.
- Newcastle University must be especially proactive in supporting PGRs with legal protection under the Equality Act, including but not limited to disabled students, parents, and carers.
- While financial support may be constrained by available resources, non-financial forms of support such as extensions and interruptions of studies are possible at minimal cost to Newcastle University.
- Financial support should be proactively offered via funded extensions for all PGRs who request them (including those in their writing up year) for at least 6 months, which is affordable for an organisation with Newcastle University’s resources.
- Non-financial support should include proactively offering i) blanket, no-fee extensions to minimum candidature or thesis submission date to any PGR who requests them, including those in their writing up year and ii) blanket approval of interruptions of studies, including to those in their writing up year, to enable PGRs to focus on caring/parenting and/or trying to support themselves through other sources of income.
Students' Union Council Resolves
- To mandate NUSU Officers to lobby Newcastle University to urgently provide financial and non-financial support as described above to all PGRs (regardless of funder), prioritising those who have already ended their funded period or writing up year and those who will end these periods soonest, and continuing this support on a rolling basis.
- To mandate NUSU Officers to seek from the University, at the very least, a guaranteed 3 month funded extension at the UKRI stipend rate for all PGR students (regardless of funder) who request this, just as staff on UKRI-funded projects have had their contracts extended by 3 months.
- To mandate NUSU Officers to engage directly with all relevant University officials (including Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, and the Postgraduate Deans) and Executive Board to bring about this support.
- To mandate NUSU Officers to engage with Postgraduate Deans and Graduate School Managers to urgently review and streamline the processes for accessing support.
- To mandate the NUSU Postgraduate Officer and the NUSU Parents, Guardians & Carers Officer to monitor the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on PGRs on an ongoing basis, and to report back to Council via Officer Reports or within Executive Committee minutes until such time as Council moves that this is no longer necessary.
Proposed by Sunil Rodger
Seconded by Charlotte Boulton
Additional Seconders: Kieran Cutting (APL), Caitlin Halfacre (SELLL), Chloe Eastabrook (SNES), Rachel Hart (SNES), Angus McVittie (GPS), Alex Bowyer (Computing)
 Calculated from Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2017/18 - Student numbers and characteristics (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/17-01-2019/sb252-higher-education-student-statistics/numbers) and Who's working in HE? (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he) (HESA)
 Ensuring your marks are fair this academic year - a guide for students (https://experience.ncl.ac.uk/ensuring-your-marks-are-fair-this-academic-year-a-guide-for-students) (Newcastle University)
 UKRI is the largest provider of research funding, including the largest funder of PGRs at Newcastle.
 UKRI Covid-19 Grant Extension Allocation - Guidance Notes 16th Dec 2020 (https://newcastle.sharepoint.com/hub/rsd/Documents/CoA%20Round%203%20guidance%20notes%20161220.docx) (Newcastle University)
 Table 1 - HE student enrolments by HE provider 2014/15 to 2018/19 (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/table-1) (HESA). This is the most recent publicly available data that distinguishes between PGRs and taught postgraduates.
 Financial Support for PGR Students (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/media/wwwnclacuk/studentprogress/files/pgr/2020/Financial%20support%20for%20PGR%20students%20061120.pdf) (Newcastle University)
 Review of Extensions for Students Impacted by COVID-19 (https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/UKRI-11112020-ReviewOfExtensionsForStudentsImpactedByCovid-19.pdf) (UKRI)
 Doctoral Extension Funding Policy (Phase 2, November 2020) (https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/UKRI-11112020-COVID-19DoctoralExtensionsPolicyPhase2PolicyStatement.pdf) (UKRI)
 'We're being fobbed off': why disabled students are losing out in lockdown (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/21/were-being-fobbed-off-why-disabled-students-are-losing-out-in-lockdown) (The Guardian)
 Padlet – Calling for Testimonies :: How do Carer PhDs Survive a Pandemic (https://padlet.com/whocreateswhatknowledge/b8mnvudumru1htnp)(Testimonies from carer PhDs)
 Staff correspondence (multiple emails, including 5th January 2021: ‘talk to your line manager who will discuss the impact and support needed for your working arrangements. This may include temporarily reviewing your duties and your working hours; and we may also support you with emergency and dependency leave. We only expect you to do what you can, and we will keep this situation under regular review.’)
 Equality Act 2010 (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents) (UK Government)
 Equality Impact Assessment, November 2020 (https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/UKRI-11112020-COVID-19DoctoralExtensionsPolicyPhase2EqualityImpactAssessment.pdf) (UKRI)
 If all 1,975 PGRs required 6 months stipend at £1300/month, this would cost an absolute maximum of £15.4m. In reality, many students will not require an extension of this length, or be otherwise ineligible, e.g. foreign students with funding from their governments.
 Integrated Annual Report 2019-2020 (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/media/wwwnclacuk/freedomofinformation/files/IAR%20reduced.pdf) (Newcastle University). The University’s research grant income to July 2020 was £97.7m; its cash/cash equivalent assets are £140.3m; and it has £354m in unrestricted reserves. Income from endowments and interest alone during 2019-20 was £10m.