PhD students in Australia are under a lot of pressure to finish their degree ‘on time’ – but why?

I thought I knew a lot about the system, until Mary-Helen Ward who is just completing a PhD on the PhD in Australia at the University of Sydney, sent me her draft thesis. I asked Mary-Helen if she would do a post to explain the dark arts of research student funding and this is the result. I hope it makes the situation a bit clearer,  for those in Australia at least!

Do you feel that your institution is putting pressure on you to submit your PhD?

A lot of students complain about this. They feel under pressure to complete and move along, but they are often not really clear about why this pressure is put on them. It feels quite personal sometimes, as if no-one really cares about you or your project. So, let me ask you a question: What do you think you cost your institution every year?

coins on a tableIf you don’t have a scholarship, it may not seem much: some hours of your supervisors’ time, maybe a desk and a computer, access to the library and, of course, to the internet. But there’s all the infrastructure those things require (buildings, plumbing, wires and cables, heating and cooling, books and journal subscriptions, staff to keep everything running so it’s there when you need it). You might have sat in on a taught class, or have attended research methods training, or an orientation program. You might work in a lab and need special equipment, or use chemicals or other renewables that incur ongoing costs.

Even this blog is partially subsidised – by the Australian National University who pays Inger’s salary. And we shouldn’t overlook the contribution of other universities, whose academics might write for the Thesis Whisperer occassionally.

You might need to travel to see your participants or to do some of your research away from your institution. You may have a scholarship, and funding that your faculty or the university makes available for software, travel to conferences and other things that are part of the PhD experience. And there’s quite a bit of administrators’ time taken up in processes like annual reviews, ethics processes and examination. And don’t forget your supervisors have undergone some kind of training for supervision at the institution.

All of these things are pretty much taken for granted as being available for free at Australian Universities, where domestic research students usually don’t have to pay fees.

The money to support them comes from the government, which provides money to institutions for research students. Research is assumed to benefit the nation, so the government invests in training people to do it. A series of arcane and complex formulas are used by the government to decide how much money it will give each institution to fund PhDs and Masters by research.

Every year, Universities make a series of reports to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE). These contain an accounting of the grant money that academic staff been granted in the last twelve months; a list of ‘countable’ items that academic staff have had published (what is countable is decided by a government body called Excellence in Research Australia (ERA); the number of Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students students who are enrolled; and the number of those students who completed their degree in the last twelve months.

At the same time as these figures are being generated and collected, the government is deciding how much money it will put into research and research training, what it calls the Joint Research Engagment (or JRE).

In 2012 the JRE was $1.63 billion; in 2013 it will be $1.67 billion, which is divided among the universities (if you’re really interested, there are a lot more details here.) A lot of this money (called a block grant) is for institutions to provide postgraduate award scholarships (APA), and to offset fees for domestic HDR students. How the amount each institution gets is calculated depends on the returns from the university for the previous year in three categories:

  • HDR student completions are weighted at 50 per cent
  • research income (successful grant applications) is weighted at 40 per cent
  • research publications are weighted at 10 per cent

Many more complex calculations are done to decide exactly how much money each institution will receive, but you can see that getting grant money and graduating research students are the two most important things a University can do in order to continue receiving the money it needs to do more research and take on HDR students in the future.

Also, you can see that half of the money that’s received depends on how many students have completed their degrees. So the university has been supporting its HDR students while they are enrolled – up to four years for a full-time student, and eight years for a part-time student, and most of the money for this isn’t paid until the year after graduation – between five and ten years after a student starts their degree.

This funding model affects what Universities can provide for their students.

A report done for the government by DeloitteAccessEconomics (pdf) suggests that wealthier universities match the money they receive from the government from their own resources up to 69% – they add $2 to every $1 they get from the government. These Universities will be able to be more generous with inter-library loans, for example, or provide better working spaces or more conference money, or some UPA awards to add to the APAs the government pays for.

Some universities can’t or don’t do this, and their students probably won’t even know they could have had more elsewhere.

So how do you contribute to the costs of your PhD? If you’re part of a team that has been granted money in a competitive process such as ARC or NHMRC, you may have earned your fees and even your scholarship yourself; you are probably doing research that is contributing to a much bigger project that will bring publications and more grant money in the future.

Have you published anything in an academic journal or a book chapter? That’s good for you and will help your professional profile, but unless the name of an academic staff member appears on it the government won’t count it in the ERA roundup.

You may have helped organise a conference, or contributed to the running of seminar series in your department, and that will also have improved your professional skills. But by far the best way you can contribute towards the cost of your own research degree in Australia is by finishing it. Many don’t; statistics show that between a quarter and a third of research students drop out. If you feel you’re under to pressure to complete your degree, this may be why: the institution wants the money it will get when you complete because it’s been supporting you in various invisible ways for years.

Are you under pressure to finish your degree? Do you think the time limits imposed by the universities and the government are fair?

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