Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fund Research Not PhDs

A media report suggests that the leading Group of Eight Universities in Australia has proposed that funding of PHD students be limited to the world ranked universities: "Fund PhDs at the best unis and forget the rest, say elite universities" (Tim Dodd, AFR, 5 September 2015). I suggest instead that universities charge student fees for PHDs, as for other postgraduate degrees. Universities can then compete for research grants to cover the extra cost of any research facilities the PHDs need.

The Go8's proposal would cut funding in some disciplines from Macquarie, Flinders, La Trobe, Newcastle, Western Sydney, Curtin, James Cook, Bond, Murdoch,  Griffith, Tasmania, Murdoch and RMIT universities. Instead I propose abolishing the Research Training Scheme, Australian Postgraduate Awards and the International Postgraduate Research Scholarships. The funds from these schemes should instead be awarded to universities on a competitive basis for research.

The current system conflates funding of research training and research. I suggest these be separated.  University and departmental rankings are not a good way to select the best research to fund. A better alternative would be to have the tuition costs of research students covered by fees and the research paid for by competitive research grants. Those universities with a good research track record, and good research proposals, would be able to attract more research funding and so be able to have more PHD students. Those universities unable to attract research funding could still offer PHDs in fields which do not require expensive equipment and offer "professional" doctorates, paid for by fees.

Also I suggest "flipping" the approach to research training. The Go8 submission assumes there should be a few PHDs and everyone else has to have an inferior "professional" degree. I suggest reversing this and assume a professional degree is normal and a PHD is a specialized subset of this. All doctoral candidates would be required to start with a professional style program, where they have to take courses in communication and innovation, as well as research techniques. These courses would be paid for by the student through fees (with the usual government loans and subsidies available for domestic students). A small proportion (perhaps 10%) of those students who show the greatest aptitude for research would go on to a research degree (partly funded by research grants), most would complete a professional doctorate (paid for by the student fees).

The current PHD funding scheme is flawed in that it pays universities to produce far more research graduates than there are jobs for (about ten times as many) and does not fund the best research. If funds were moved from these unnecessary PHDs, there would be more for quality research and more graduates with useful skills.

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