Call for postgraduate research students to be paid

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) has renewed its call for research students to be paid for their work, as the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures confirm that postgraduate students comprise the majority of human resources dedicated to research.

According to last Tuesday’s Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) release on resources devoted to research and development (R&D), the contribution of postgraduate students remains steady at 57% of total time spent on research.

Despite postgraduate students putting in the majority of research-hours, in many cases they are not paid for their work, CAPA says. Domestic research students are not entitled to any study payments from Centrelink – the government agency responsible for delivering income support payments and related services – regardless of level of poverty, and can only obtain income support through securing a competitive scholarship.

CAPA last week called on the government to begin to address this situation by committing to income support payments for all domestic postgraduate students.

“Postgraduate students are integral to Australia’s research output. It is unacceptable that research and development relies so heavily on exploiting students through unpaid labour,” says CAPA National President Natasha Abrahams.

CAPA said that international research students are working under even more difficult circumstances than domestic students.

“Those who do not have a scholarship are not only contributing to the national research output without pay, they are also forking out for extortionate course fees. A longer-term solution would involve all doctoral students receiving living allowance stipends to support their research activities,” CAPA said in a statement last Tuesday.

The ABS published a statement on Tuesday, indicating that Australian higher education institutions devoted a total of 79,008 person years of effort (PYE) to R&D in 2016. This was an increase of 969 PYE (1%) from 2014.

More than half of the human resources devoted to R&D in 2016 were postgraduate students (57%) with the remainder being academic staff (30%) and other staff supporting R&D (12%).

Expenditure on R&D performed by Australian higher education organisations during the 2016 calendar year was AU$10.9 billion.

According to the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, the Australian government commits AU$20 million (US$15 million) in funding annually to Australian universities for more than 300 International Postgraduate Research Scholarships.

These enable international students to undertake a postgraduate research qualification in Australia and gain experience with leading Australian researchers. The scholarship covers tuition fees plus health cover costs for scholarship holders and their dependants.

Talking on ABC on Thursday, Abrahams said that, of the Australian domestic PhDs and masters commencing each year, only about one third receive scholarships, “so that is a lot of students missing out and most students are unpaid”.

She said: “We hear a lot from students about the troubles they are having trying to balance working with their PhD – they work in their labs or offices for really long hours, much longer than you would expect in a normal job – so it is really tough. They are having to juggle and make sacrifices to complete their studies.

“It’s a really contentious issue that postgraduate students are upset about and have been for a long time.”

Sorry, but if you don't get a scholarship, you likely shouldn't be doing a PhD. We already have a glut of them. Standards for entrance seem to be slipping.

Christopher MacHurambe on the University World News Facebook page