Science Higher degree research students – overlook them at your peril


The societal benefits of Australian university science result largely from the effort of its research teams. At the heart of these are Higher degree research students (HDRs), working in areas such as, for example, new forms of energy generation and storage, bushfire modelling and prediction, vaccine candidates for COVID-19, and smart materials for protective equipment.

Indeed, HDR students are a mainstay of Australian university science, being an integral part of the university research system, and increasingly the bridge that connects university science with problems and their solutions in the community. We would not have the repository of innovation to draw upon, nor a competitive level of research productivity, without them.

While this is all well understood by those inside universities, it is a matter that needs more attention from the public and from government decision makers when it comes to dealing with matters like COVID-19.

The ACDS is holding a national forum on Wednesday May 6th for science faculties and divisions to share their experiences in managing research in the face of the COVID-19 restrictions.

In connection with that event the ACDS is publishing two charts on its website to emphasise two points about the crucial role that research students play in Australian university science. We expect that our colleagues in other STEM areas could share similar data.

Chart 1 shows the number of research students in science-based fields versus research publications, as a measure of research productivity, across Australia’s universities. The association emphasizes the critical contribution that HDR students make to research. Although it doesn’t mean that just by increasing the number of research students you will increase research outputs, it does emphasise the symbiosis between them.

The impact of COVID-19 on HDR students will therefore have substantial impacts on Australian university science and its capacity to deliver innovations when the country needs them most.

Chart 2 shows the proportion of research students in these science related areas that come from overseas. At a national average of 44%, it is much higher than the national average for all students, undergraduate and postgraduate, which is about 30%.

Consequently, if our overseas research students were to leave Australia and go home, the impact on Australian university science would be enormously detrimental. In some universities with over 60% of science research students from overseas, the impact would be catastrophic. The way in which the impact of COVID-19 is managed, and entry restrictions and the ability to work in Universities or the retail or hospitality industry, will have a direct impact on these outcomes.

The situation for our domestic research students is no less precarious. There is no longer ample casual teaching to sustain them, and they are not eligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper. Access to many research facilities and travel to field sites is restricted, but the clock is still ticking on their candidature. Despite some availability of extensions, substantial uncertainties remain for them.

We urge the Federal Government, and the National Cabinet, to develop strategies to retain and support our HDR students, domestic and international, during these challenging times. For international research students such support should include managed access to Australia and financial support to enable them to continue to contribute to innovation in Australia.

The size and composition of the research student cohort in Australian university science needs to be a matter of planning, not of unintended consequence.


Professor Brian Yates                         Professor John Rice

President, ACDS                                 Executive Director, ACDS

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