Most Australian university campuses are now physically closed due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Some research students, mainly from the humanities and social sciences, will be able to satisfactorily progress their award courses in this virtual world by using remote resources, principally the internet.
Students enrolled in science, engineering and health science research degrees are less fortunate. Many of these students require access to on-site laboratory facilities and resources to progress their degree studies. Consequently, they are seriously impacted by campus closures.
Analysis of the latest 2018 student data from the then Department of Education and Training reveals that there were 66,455 research students enrolled in doctorates and masters by research. Domestic students represented 65 per cent (43,394) and overseas students 35 per cent (23,066) of this cohort. Some 41,574 (63 per cent) of these students were enrolled in science-related research degrees and 24,881 (37 per cent) in humanities and social sciences research degrees. So we can expect the majority of research students to have their progress disrupted by the closure of campuses. Overseas students are the most severely affected because 75 per cent of international enrolments are in science-related degrees, compared with 56 per cent of the domestic students. Many of the 23,000 overseas students will not now be in Australia. As the country returns to progressive normality we can expect some lengthy delays before international travel restrictions are lifted. A knock-on effect will be delays in resuming some nationally important research programs.
Postgraduate students represented 57 per cent of the total higher education human resources devoted to R&D according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data. Furthermore, research students are co-authors on at least 50 percent of university publications in international journals. The disruption will have a major impact on research productivity, impacting differentially on various disciplines, with laboratory-based research being most curtailed. To ensure not too much momentum is lost a priority for universities will be the welfare of research students in this uncertain period to avoid terminations. Universities Australia has recently raised the issue.
Actions that are appropriate to take include increasing the candidature of research students by six to 12 months, ensuring stipends and other welfare benefits continue to be paid and granting suspension of candidature. Counselling will need to be available for those in greatest need. Some research students will experience financial hardship because they are self-funded or supplement their stipend with casual work that now may not be available. Some domestic students may qualify for government assistance, but others, including many overseas students still in Australia, may be less fortunate. The Prime Minister stated on April 3 that he expected international students to have the capacity to support themselves at least for the first twelve months or return to their home countries. This would not be a good outcome for Australian research.
The more than 66,000 research students are an important national resource, critical to sustaining Australia’s research and development programs and for maintaining an internationally competitive skill base. It is essential that universities and government bodies respond generously to ensure all research students, domestic and international, are adequately supported in this time of crisis.
Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins,
University of Melbourne