ACGR position on Implementation of RTP Changes

July 2021

Growing industry internships for research PhD students through the Research Training Program   

ACGR’s Response to the DESE Implementation Paper                                                                                                                                     

Graduate research training is a national endeavour which builds research capacity and aims to produce graduates who can effectively contribute to Australia’s economic growth and societal development.

Candidates commence higher degrees by research (HDR) with diverse prior experience with many undertaking this training after a significant period of employment and work/life experience. Unlike many undergraduate and postgraduate coursework degrees, HDR degrees are not organised as a linear pathway to a particular employment outcome. Rather, the HDR graduates contribute to Australia’s knowledge and innovation economy and develop the research and transferable skills that will equip them for a wide range of potential employment, entrepreneurial and leadership outcomes.

Graduate research internships, broadly defined, can be a valuable element of this research training experience.

Whilst these programs can bolster industry’s ability to harness ideas and concepts for innovation and encourage the recruitment of high calibre PhD graduates, ACGR argues that rather than seeking to build individual employment pathways, the internships should be a vehicle to increase employability more generally through the development of research and transferable skills. Such an approach would be consistent with the objectives of the Research Training Program (RTP) to:

  • deliver graduates with the skills required to build careers in academia and other sectors of the labour market
  • support collaboration between HEPs and industry and other research end-users

It follows that internships should enable PhD candidates to build employability and develop research capabilities that are aligned to R & D requirements across a variety of sectors of the economy as well as non-R & D Innovation activity that underpins many Australian businesses and services.

ACGR notes that industry engagement occurs along a continuum of which internships are just one component and encourages DESE to accommodate as much flexibility as possible when defining and implementing the changes to the RTP. A broad definition of internship was utilised in the University of Sheffield Report which was cited in the DESE Implementation Paper. This included CASE studentships (Industry PhDs), time spent in academic research groups and internships non-cognate with a student’s research field of study.

Commencement of Internship

DESE has indicated that it will be expected that an internship will be commenced within the first 18 months of candidature. The intent and operation of this proposed condition needs to be clarified since it is not clear that it will optimise the experience for either the candidate or the Industry end-user.

Whilst it may be advantageous for candidates to consider an internship in their development plans during the first year of candidature, allowing the bulk of the activity to occur later in candidature would provide a better opportunity to demonstrate/test the research and transferable skills developed during HDR candidature and also make a more significant contribution to the activity of the Industry partner.

This would also align with the ACGR Good Practice Guidelines for Industry Engagement, developed with the Australian Industry Group, which note the need to manage risk by considering the candidates’ “fitness to practice” i. e. that they are progressing satisfactorily in the HDR candidature such that an internship in Industry would not affect timely completion of the thesis and that their knowledge base and research capability is appropriate for the required internship.

If DESE insists on a requirement to commence a placement within 18 months of candidature the best approach is to require the establishment of an internship within 18 months of effective full-time candidature and this should include an agreement with the Industry partner.

Defining the Internship  

Many students already work on Industry-sponsored PhD projects and no doubt it will be argued that they are already Industry engaged. To deal with this situation and other examples where a student might propose an internship that was essentially the same as the PhD project there needs to be a way in which the point of distinction between internship and PhD project is clear. To achieve this aim we need to look at the internship from a developmental perspective and consider the skills and capabilities that the PhD student would acquire:

  • Undertaking an internship in an area that is non-cognate with the candidate’s research discipline would enable transferable skills to be tested and developed. This would be consistent with the need to build Australian capacity in non-R&D Innovation.
  • If the internship is cognate with the candidate’s research expertise then it might involve a program of work that is distinct from the candidate’s PhD project. This would not preclude an Industry-sponsored student working with the same Industry partner, provided there was a clear distinction between the internship and PhD project. There may be significant benefits for candidates to undertake internships in areas of greater technological maturity (technological validation, prototyping) which lie beyond their research project.

It is also important to note that an internship experience does not necessarily need to occur over a continuous face to face full-time-period, the three-month minimum FTE duration could be spread across a longer period, in part-time or intermittent mode, involve on-site or virtual engagement, depending on the needs of the project and the stakeholders involved. Clarity is also required as to whether all internships should be by individuals or whether teams working together with an industry partner would qualify under this scheme and whether internships with international end-users overseas would be in scope.

Consideration of Internships for Research Masters students

DESE has excluded Research Masters students in the new RTP guidelines relating to altered weighting of funding. ACGR suggests that this should be reconsidered; a shorter HDR with an internship could be attractive to some Industry sectors. This ought to assessed via feedback from end-users and also from HEPs where successful Industry-Research Masters Programs are in operation.

Documenting Internships and Outcomes

It will be important that to ensure guidelines for internships are linked to a reporting framework that documents the educational benefits to the PhD candidate as well as the expected outcomes of the internship for the industry partner. This should include clear evidence that the internship conditions are consistent with Fair Work legislation (as discussed in the ACGR/Ai Good Practice Guidelines for Industry Engagement). The outcomes arising from the internship should also be assessed: student perspective on their development, end-user assessment of the performance of the internee and comments on their capabilities (research skills, transferable skills, professional skills). Uniformity of reporting will enable the value of graduate researchers to Industry to be documented and enable a strengthening of the research training system through end-user feedback.

The proposal to count and report “days of engagement with research end-user” is unrealistic for graduate research candidature as it seems to assume attendance on site and individual full days of engagement. ACGR recommends that these definitions be refined to acknowledge the likelihood of virtual and/or  part time internships that are not necessarily undertaken in discrete blocks of time.

In summary, key recommendations for change:

Currently proposed ACGR recommendation Justification/comments
Only in Doctoral of Philosophy degrees Broaden to include research masters. Developing industry experience connection at the Masters level may suit some Industry partners.
To be commenced within the first 18 months Planned for as part of Confirmation of Candidature but the timing of each internship should align with the skill development of the candidate and the needs of the Industry partner/potential employer  HDR candidates are still developing their research skills and capability in early candidature. The timing should afford the greatest flexibility. From an end-user perspective: some employers may prefer an intern who will be available for employment in the near future or whose research skills are mature, while others can only intermittently provide internships, not able to fit with a tightly constrained timing.
The requirement to commence an internship within the first 18 months of candidature should be removed from the Implementation plan. Flexible arrangements for the timing commencement of internships have already demonstrated their value and the sector should build on this success.
Cognate There are benefits of both cognate or non-cognate engagement Enhances employability through the development of transferable skills. Exposes Australian Industry to students with a research and innovation mindset.
Physical Physical and virtual Enables rural and international opportunities.
Nomenclature Internship Clarity that this is primarily a developmental opportunity for the candidate and does not breach any FWA considerations.