Many Australians are bemoaning the higher education reforms introduced in this year’s Australian Federal budget. Hidden among a raft of budget announcements was the news that postgraduate researchers will now have to pay fees.

In 2008, an inquiry into building Australia’s research capacity raised concerns that postgraduate researchers faced strong competition from the workforce due to the wages sacrificed while they undertook their postgraduate study.

Now, it seems, not only are postgraduate researchers to forgo wages, but they will be subjected to student fees.

An article in The Conversation suggests that under the new system, a PhD could amount to AUD$30,000 or more, taking into account the effect of compound interest on undergraduate fees. Further, it argues, the changes will be to the detriment of research and innovation overall.

The introduction of postgraduate fees was not the only announcement to cause an outcry. The deregulation of undergraduate fees and the higher interest on higher education contribution scheme (HECS) debts added to the dismay of many in Australia’s higher education sector, causing many to question the way the public benefit of tertiary education is valued and funded.

It is likely the changes to undergraduate fees will affect participation in postgraduate research education, in addition to the changes being introduced for postgraduate researchers.

Postgrad fees in New Zealand

In New Zealand, postgraduate research students have to pay fees, so the changes across the Tasman bring the Australian system more in line with our own fee structure.

While these fees vary according to discipline, they are typically around the $7000 mark per year. PhD international students are eligible to pay domestic fees, making New Zealand a much cheaper option compared with many other countries. However, this does not apply for a Master’s degree, and international students can expect to pay around $27,000, depending on discipline.

The attitude towards fees varies, but some feel the cost of postgraduate education is offset by the promise of slightly higher wages.

Dean of Postgraduate Research at University of Canterbury Dr Lucy Johnston points out that many doctoral students do receive scholarships, either from their host university or from external agencies, such as companies, government departments, and Crown Research Institutes. These agencies will usually pay the student fees and a stipend – usually between $20,000 and $40,000 per annum.

Under the University of Auckland’s Postgraduate Research Student Support (PReSS) scheme, the university provides research support funding for doctoral candidates dependent on their doctoral subject area. Funding is allocated on the basis of the Tertiary Education Commission’s funding bands that recognise the relative research costs for each doctoral subject area.

However, despite the many avenues available for funding and support, many postgrad students still face fees, and due to the removal of student allowances for many postgraduates, the only option is to continue to draw on a student loan.

“Approximately a third of doctoral students at Canterbury do pay their own way,” confirms Johnston, “I guess that indicates that at least for some the personal investment is worth it.”

There is also the notion that postgrads can expect to earn more when they enter the workforce. University of Canterbury’s director of student services Lynn McClelland points to the university’s 2013 Graduate Destinations Survey, which indicates master’s and PhD students earn more in employment after graduating than undergraduates.

It could be argued that this is offset by income they could have earned in employment.

Most PhD students are not driven by the money. As Elf Eldridge comments on SciBlogs, to suggest that PhD students are motivated solely by money is to “completely miss the point”, and it is making a contribution to the global repository of knowledge that is the real aim.

Knock-on effect for Kiwi postgrads

For many Kiwi students, the lure of a fee-free postgraduate research degree in Australia has been too tempting to pass up. What’s more, New Zealand citizens are entitled to study at Australian tertiary institutions without requiring a student visa, making it an easy transition.

Sharon Harvey, deputy dean (research) at Auckland University of Technology says in recent years many students have left New Zealand to pick up their postgraduate research in Australia, and have consequently found employment afterwards, contributing to the well-known ‘brain drain’.

She suggests we are not capitalising on the work that has gone into the students in their school and undergraduate years in New Zealand.

Australia’s higher education reforms may see more Kiwi students opting to stay in New Zealand to complete their postgraduate research. With the fee-free enticement gone, and New Zealand students’ ineligibility for Australian student loans, we are likely to see fewer Kiwis jumping across the ditch.

However, the Daniel Haines, president of the New Zealand Union of Student Associations maintains support for postgrads is still better in Australia. He laments the New Zealand Government’s decision to cut the postgraduate student allowance.

“The short-sighted cut has resulted in a reduction of research, innovation, expertise and knowledge in New Zealand. Students who can’t afford to carry on to postgraduate study are forced to discontinue or take up the take up the much better support offered in Australia and never to return – both are unacceptable options.”

For the greater good?

While Australia has changed certain aspects of its higher education system to look more like New Zealand’s, and the knock-on effect of the Australian changes might be to our benefit, it does not necessarily follow that fees for postgraduate researchers are a good thing.

Harvey believes high fees deter researchers, particularly in disciplines like the humanities.

“By the time students reach the end of their master’s, they have spent a lot of time and money,” she says.

It can be a difficult decision indeed for a newly graduated master’s student with a heavy loan to burden to invest yet more time and money into further study at the expense of employment.

Harvey suggests Australia’s knowledge economy discourse originally led it to cease fees for doctorates, however the Government now appears to view the university as a private, user-pays entity, rather than a public good.

It will be interesting to watch the reforms take shape and to witness the effect they have on research outcomes in Australia, as well as the impact on our own postgraduate research community.

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