By Romana-Rea Begicevic
PhD candidate, Curtin University
Even though they make up around 15% of the university student population, Australian universities rely heavily on graduate research student outputs for their global rankings and reputation. Efforts which also make a significant contribution to national growth and prosperity.
Recent figures released by the ABS show that while graduate research students account for over 56% of the human resources universities devote to research and development (R&D), only around 40% of those students commence their degrees with a stipend. Even less complete their research program with one.
Given the importance of this contribution, there is a strong need to address systemic issues affecting the ability of students to successfully complete their research programs. It is in the interest of our society and our universities to ensure viable study and career pathways are available to our future leaders.
Graduate research students genuinely love what they do. Their tenacity, spirit, and desire to create a better world for us all to live in, keep things ticking along. However, the barriers they face are not for a lack of effort or talent, but rather, for the lack of funding and support. The reality is that in many instances only the highly privileged can participate in a 4+ year PhD program to completion while relying on minimal pay if any at all.
The COVID pandemic has done little more than highlight the existing cracks within the system, which surround: safety; mental health and wellbeing; support services; the length of a PhD degree and scholarship funding; wage theft and stagnation; the rising costs of living, and dismal career opportunities. All these factors are tightly intertwined.
The recent results of Universities Australia’s Social Research Centre’s 2021 National Student Safety Survey on sexual harassment and assault are shocking and outrageous, but not surprising. Student organisations have been telling us for years, even decades, what is only now being recognised as a serious issue. The extent and gravity of these issues require wholehearted and immediate action.
Sexual harassment and assault at places of work, such as at our world-class universities, are systemic and unacceptable. These acts of violence also disproportionally affect those already disadvantaged, women, those from LGBTQIA+ communities, students with a disability, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Research students are also disproportionally affected. This is unacceptable and frankly disgusting. The blatant disrespect, especially toward minority groups, must undergo a systemic paradigm shift.
COVID-19 has only made things worse. With as many as 220 million students globally having been affected by the crisis, it is feared the pandemic will cause losses of US$10-17 trillion to the lifetime earnings of students. Staggering figures, which equate to about 14% of 2021 global GDP. Other reviews have estimated even higher losses, which could reach as high as $30.7 trillion. Recovery from economic disruption of this magnitude will take a long time and could prove to be more challenging than the Great Depression recovery. Higher education might take decades to recover if it ever does.
At first, the pandemic did create some opportunities for change, allowing teachers and students to work in different ways. In some cases, even affording the chance to catch up on leisure time and hobbies, for which they didn’t have time previously. But teachers in insecure work were quickly subjected to agony arising from fears about their future. A situation made worse by delayed payments and disruptions to other service benefits. Even tenured positions were affected. Job cuts have led to a wholesale abandonment of staff as academics and professional support staff, particularly casuals, were sacked by the hundreds.
Cuts to higher education by successive federal governments have exacerbated the issue. Funding for our researchers well below the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP. The result of these cuts will most certainly lead to a generational brain drain. This neglect sets back years’ worth of progress.
These circumstances have left research students scrambling and unsupported. Many have had to find new supervisors. Those still employed had their teaching allocations increased, research allocations reduced, and student supervision allocations cancelled altogether. This unfortunate sequence of events aligns with the idea of labourers in factories in a neoliberal market economy. Following this analogy, teachers are being treated as a dispensable commodity, placing many in a position of having to leave the academic profession in search of alternative jobs to make a living.
The same trends can be observed among PhD students, many of whom have lost interest in continuing their research and have simply dropped out. Surveys suggest that up to 25% of PhD students in Australia and Canada may halt their studies as a result of the pandemic. Losing this student talent and capability would significantly disrupt a research workforce that supports economic growth and social development.
Students’ unwillingness to continue their research and plummeting numbers of new admissions are of major concern. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic will resolve itself eventually but the number of dropouts and falls in enrolment will have serious implications for the future of higher education. Moreover, the casualisation of higher education work is demoralising to teachers and detrimental to students. Should this become the standard within higher education, who would want to stick around for that?
International students felt these blows the most, as many relied on casual teaching jobs while frozen out of income support during the pandemic. The fall in international student numbers and reduced international mobility will have major adverse effects on the quality of research. It is well known that international mobility enhances intellectual advancement, and broadening of thinking, vision, and approach. Academic debates can take place online, but true cultural exchange does not.
The disruption to projects caused by the pandemic and endless lockdowns has led to a great deal of uncertainty regarding timely completions, but some universities remain reluctant to grant extensions. This is despite extensions to research PhD and Masters’ degrees being legislated during my Presidency at the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) in 2020.
Around 50% of students typically take longer than four years and one month to complete their degrees. Timely completion has only become more difficult following COVID. For example, around 95% of health scientists at the University of Otago were found to have experienced disruptions to their research and struggled to make progress due to limited access to supervisors and colleagues. This experience holds true for graduate research students across the globe, Therefore, wouldn’t it be easier to fund PhD extensions, than be responsible for ensuring the creation of the next economic brain drain? I think so.
It has been three years since the ACGR unanimously accepted my recommendation to implement standardised mental health principles. I am pleased universities across the sector have adopted these guidelines. Since then, I have also ensured that PhD students were recognised as being at a higher risk group by Orygen’s National Mental Health Framework, for Australian Universities. Income and future career prospects are tightly linked to mental health and well-being. These factors are now more prevalent than ever, with reduced mobility, networking opportunities and declining career outcomes. Available evidence has confirmed that suicide rates among students have increased during the pandemic period. And the inability of institutions to pay teachers’ salaries could lead some teachers to resort to the same extreme measure of ending lives. The socio-psychological dimensions are too serious to ignore.
When the government considers unemployment figures, they are including anyone who has worked one hour in the last fortnight as employed. The number of graduate researchers dropping out to drive for UBER is not cause for celebration. This is not what I mean by appropriate career opportunities. We want jobs and steady career growth within the fields we have studied.
With conferences, seminars, internships, recruitment activities and job opportunities withdrawn or cancelled indefinitely, doctoral students have suffered major setbacks. Now back at it, students are having to re-adjust their research plans, with many needing funded extensions to complete their research, while facing shrinking job prospects in academia. The negative impacts of job losses will disproportionately be felt by women, those with a disability and from minority communities – a trend that will be exacerbated for early career researchers and recent graduates within those groups.
PhD students often aim for a career in academia, rating alternatives as second best. However, around 75% end up being employed outside of universities. Therefore, it is vital students receive high-quality information about alternative careers. Researchers at ANU found that 80% of adverts for highly skilled researchers do not target people with a PhD degree.
A better understanding of the demand for, and value of, research skills is needed. This would improve how universities train students for their future careers and enhance PhD graduates’ contribution to society and the economy. These are important considerations in the current context of higher education over-casualisation, when wage theft and stagnation run in parallel with constant rises to the cost of living.
If we have learned anything, it is just how isolated research students often are. Furthermore, since the start of the pandemic, racial biases, and disproportionate prejudices toward the already disadvantaged and minoritized groups have been amplified. These factors ripple into every area of life. They reduce opportunity and adversely affect education, home, and employment outcomes.
This reality highlights the importance of community, campus life, peers, support networks, and targeted support.
The incoming federal government, working with state governments across the country, has an obligation to protect these fundamental components of the graduate research experience. I therefore recommend that the government:
- Increases the RTP stipend to match the cost of living
- Provide more fully funded scholarships
- Invest in more research and funding to match the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP
- Invest more in blue-sky research
- And specialised job opportunities
- Implement the 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work Report
Hand in hand with this, Australian universities must:
- Increase the length of a PhD degree
- Improve the student experience
- Targeted career support, including worker rights and responsibilities for international students
- Improve mental health support that is culturally appropriate and inclusive
- Support campus activities, societies, peer support groups and clubs
- Rectify wage theft issues and pay back all monies owed
- Implement more effective Sexual Assault / Sexual Harassment prevention strategies
Romana-Rea Begicevic recently submitted her PhD which she undertook with the Metabolic Signalling Group of the Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute at Curtin University. She is the former president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. This paper is an edited version of a presentation delivered to the ACGR National Meeting in April 2022.
See also: World Bank (20 May 2020) ‘The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education financing’ and World Bank (18 June 2020) ‘COVID-19 could lead to permanent loss in learning and trillions of Dollars in lost earnings’.