Impact Blog

After COVID – a 2020s vision for graduate research in Australia: Graduate Research and the Entrepreneurial State

December 2021
Professor Alastair McEwan
Convenor, ACGR and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research Training), University of Queensland


Two years ago, at the second ACGR biannual meeting in Wollongong there was a tangible sense of achievement and optimism for the future of graduate research in Australia. Implementation of the recommendations of the ACOLA review of research training, largely through the work of ACGR, had positioned the sector to greatly enhance the quality and impact of graduate research in Australia. ‘How to manage graduate research programs during a pandemic’ was not an agenda item in 2019 but we rose to the challenge when COVID struck and the way in which we have successfully navigated the last two years is a testament to the resilience of our students and the extraordinary professionalism of graduate research ‘Schools’ across Australian and NZ universities. As we emerge from the pandemic with state & international borders reopening, we are also aware that our world has changed in so many ways; we won’t be ‘snapping back’ and the reason for this was that COVID merely accelerated trends that were already occurring. One year into the new decade it’s timely to think about these trends and the role of graduate research.

Both the ACOLA review and the Watt review of Commonwealth Research Training Funding established that the purpose of support for graduate research was to enable the develop HDR candidates who can pursue careers in academia or in an extensive range of other sectors of the economy and society. A diversity of careers for HDR graduates has always been the norm but the greater clarity of purpose arising from these reviews has led the inclusion of transferable and professional skill development for graduate researchers in HDR programs. Here, the plurality of the Australian graduate research system is a major strength with universities crafting innovative programs that can be shared across the sector. Internships and placements have also become embedded in HDR Programs and the growth of the APRIntern scheme during the pandemic was quite remarkable. Feedback from end-users regarding the impact and quality of graduate researchers undertaking internships/placements is almost always very positive; these schemes and the interest in employing HDR graduates has huge potential to make businesses better and drive innovation.

During 2021 we have encountered a bump in the road with the release of the NPILF pilot and the Growing Industry Internships through RTP initiative. Here, the Federal Government has made a category error in considering internships for HDR candidates as no more than Work Integrated Learning (WIL). WIL has clear merit for the training of students in programs leading to professional employment but it is incredibly limiting for PhD students who are aiming to build their research capabilities for a career that has not yet been identified; there is no linear pathway to employment for PhDs. The Deans and Directors of Graduate Schools will no doubt make the best of a badly thought through initiative but it does seem a great pity that in pursuing this doctrinaire policy the Federal Government has missed an opportunity to develop a research workforce of PhD graduates through a flexible internship scheme that placed development of the PhD candidate at the centre of the process and enabled Industry to better understand what a PhD level researcher could bring to their business, and likely invest in researchers as part of an innovation strategy. As ever, our best goals are met through an indirect (non-linear) approach.

It’s not too late for the Federal government to re-consider their position on Internships and work with Universities and Industry to build a more purposeful framework that benefits everyone. However, it may be more productive to look elsewhere and work with those who are taking a progressive approach to investment and economic development and see the value of graduate researchers. COVID has changed the dynamics of Commonwealth-State relationships and it seems clear that States now have an ambition to develop their own economic and societal agenda. The NSW government has eclipsed the Federal Government and Labour opposition with its 50% renewables target by 2030 and its investment in renewable energy. With the Accelerating R & D in NSW and the Breakthrough Victoria Fund state governments are making a clear commitment to supporting research and researchers as part of an innovation strategy that places government investment at the heart of the agenda. I have every hope that an Australian form of Mazzucato’s Entrepreneurial State can emerge across our States that provides fantastic opportunities for our graduate researchers; after all, that it is intent of RTP investment.

For this last blog post of 2021 and my last as Convenor, I want to thank all Deans and Directors and the ACGR Executive for their tremendous contributions over the last two years. My appointment as Dean, Graduate School at the University of Queensland in March 2013 coincided with the release of a discussion paper ‘The changing PhD‘ by the Group of Eight. Many of the challenges set out in this paper have been addressed. However, the Go8 paper also observed that ‘unless there is agreement on the purpose there is no way to determine whether the existing system is serving the purpose or needs changing. At a broad level PhD training is about building national capabilities, although building capabilities without providing a means of using them can seem short-sighted.’ I believe that we are closer than ever to agreement on purpose and this will ensure to an exciting future for graduate research in Australia.







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