Research postgraduates to pay for the privilege

As well as generating alarm among Australia’s academics with his reform plans for higher education, federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has caused consternation among research masters and doctoral students by proposing to make them pay fees for the first time.

Under the new scheme, planned to be adopted in 2016, postgraduates undertaking research degrees would be charged up to A$3,900 (US$3,600) a year. At the same time, Pyne wants to cut A$175 million from the government’s research training scheme which enables universities to enrol research students without them having to pay fees.

Pyne presumably intends research students to make up for the shortfall in government spending on higher education. Yet they are usually not enrolled to study particular courses but to undertake research with a supervisor in a mostly unpaid capacity.

As Meghan Hopper, president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, pointed out, imposing fees on students engaged in research for their degrees was equivalent to asking “Australia’s best and brightest researchers to pay to come to work”.

“To be accepted into a PhD is an acknowledgement that the student is among the very best and brightest in their field, capable of contributing to a unique field of knowledge,” Hopper said. “The research training scheme, which currently allows universities to offer PhD studies free to domestic students, has always been an acknowledgement of that fact.”

She said the cuts to the training scheme and the introduction of fees on research degrees were an attack on the nation’s future research leaders and the future academic workforce. The council was looking forward to the Senate rejecting the policies.

“Postgraduate students are also strongly opposed to the increase in interest rates of up to 6% on the government’s student loan scheme debts, which will have a particularly adverse impact on those who choose to price themselves out of repayments while undertaking further study,” Hopper said.

Last Thursday, Hopper delivered a petition to Pyne’s electoral office in Adelaide with 2,500 signatures calling on the minister to reverse the cuts to the training scheme and the introduction of fees for research students.

She said her council had received commitments from the Labor Party, the Greens and the four Senate members of the new Palmer United Party that they would not support fees on research degrees. That meant the policy was unlikely to pass the Senate.

But Pyne could make cuts to the training scheme without obtaining approval by the Senate. PhDs and masters by research students would then have funding for their programmes slashed with universities having no means to make up the loss in federal grants, Hopper said.