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Bleak financial outlook for PhD students in Australia

An ornate building seen from ground level down a path, framed by blue sky and trees.

The University of Sydney, where a survey by and of PhD students has revealed financial concerns.Credit: Zhencong Chen/Alamy

PhD students in Australia are bracing themselves for a financial crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey of 1,020 students at the University of Sydney. Three-quarters of respondents anticipate financial hardship; 45% expect to be forced to suspend or withdraw from their studies in the next six months owing to lack of funds .

The full results of the survey, conducted online from 6 to 9 April, are published as a preprint on Research Square1.

The study was conducted by University of Sydney PhD students who had witnessed the impacts of the epidemic on themselves and their peers. “Stress levels were already high, but they were suddenly going through the roof,” says lead author Rebecca Johnson, who studies graduate-research education. She says that the survey clearly struck a chord among participants, who were self-selected. “We got 1,000 responses in the first 24 hours, mostly through word of mouth,” she says. “As students, we had a handle on what we should be asking.”

For some respondents, the future looks especially bleak. Almost one-fifth indicated that they are either already unable to afford necessities such as medicine, utilities or an Internet connection, or expect to face those financial struggles within six months. Five per cent are either already homeless or expect to lose their housing within six months.

On the edge

Johnson says that the pandemic has exposed the already precarious situation of Australian PhD students, and made it worse. She notes that although some students receive modest government-funded scholarships, most have to take on extra work to support themselves. “The majority of students rely on teaching or other jobs, such as working at cafes,” she says. Because universities cut teaching hours and workplaces closed during the pandemic, many students have been left scrambling.

Universities across Australia are expecting major budget shortfalls, largely driven by an expected decline in enrolment of international students — an increasingly important source of revenue. In May, a government report estimated that Australian universities could shed up to 7,000 full-time research jobs in the following six months. The report also forecast that a decline in numbers of international students could lead to a loss of revenue of around Aus$3 billion (US$2 billion) this year alone.

The survey results are alarming, but they would probably be even more dire if the same questions were asked now, three months later, says Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the Australian National University in Canberra and the founder and editor of the popular blog The Thesis Whisperer. “I think we haven’t seen the full impact of university austerity measures until now,” she says. “I would expect job losses to reach a peak in the next six months.”

Diversity loss

Johnson notes that economically disadvantaged students who have few resources for financial back-up will be the most likely to drop out, leaving relatively wealthy students in academia. That shift could drastically reduce the diversity of higher education, she says: “The last thing we need is to gentrify our labs.” She also expects that students who have caring responsibilities will find it especially hard to carry on with their studies, a situation that will affect women disproportionately.

Students who are supported by scholarships are also worried. Two-thirds of survey respondents said that they would need their scholarships to be extended by more than six months to compensate for the impact of COVID-19 on their research.

Mewburn calls for six-month extensions for all students. After that, she says, universities could reassess needs on a case-by-case basis.

She also notes that the nation is taking steps to retain more international students, an effort that could soften the financial blow to universities and give PhD students more security. Her university, for instance, is participating in a pilot programme that involves chartering flights and paying for the quarantine of up to 350 students arriving from overseas. “If international students can return in anything like previous numbers, I think recovery could be swift,” she says. “But that’s a big ‘if’.”

Even with a quick rebound, the ongoing crisis will probably reshape Australian higher education for years to come, Johnson says. “We’re putting a huge dent in our research capacities,” she says.



  1. 1.

    Johnson, R. L., Coleman, R. A., Batten, N. H., Hallsworth, D. & Spencer, E. E. Preprint at Research Square (2020).

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