Australian University Funding Changes: What Could This Mean for PhD Students?

by Kristyn Jackson

On 18 December 2017, the Australian government announced several changes to higher education funding as part of their Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO; available here). A summary of the changes can be found in The Conversation.

Changes include:

  • a freeze on the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) for bachelor degrees at 2017 levels, effective from 1 January 2018 through 2019;
  • CGS increases in funding from 2020 will be capped at the rate of growth seen in the 18 to 64-year-old population (projected at 1.2%);
  • a reduction of 3,000 funded postgraduate places nationwide; and
  • a change in allocation of funding for diplomas, associate degrees, and postgraduate courses to “to improve transparency, accountability, and responsiveness to the aspirations of students and future workforce needs” (MYEFO 2017, p. 9).

Capping CGS bachelor-degree placements until 2020 means that revenue received from domestic bachelor degrees will remain at the 2017 level. This revenue source will not increase from 2018 to 2019. Universities must implement cost-cutting changes over this time to ensure their future sustainability.

What does this mean for hopeful PhD students, or those with aspirations of working in Australian higher education?

Sessional tutors

For grad students working as sessional academics and tutors, change is afoot. You may expect to see a reduction in the number and duration of tutorials, as well as a reduction in student numbers (particularly in areas which incur higher subsidy rates, like nursing and engineering).

From 2018 through to 2019, there may be an increase in full-fee-paying international students, to counteract the capped CGS-supported (domestic) placements.

Prospective PhD students

For prospective PhD students, the nationwide reduction of 3000 postgraduate placements, as well as frozen university revenue, are a cause for concern. These changes may lead to increased competitiveness for placement into PhD programs. The area you intend to study may be subject to scrutiny, respecting its industry-applicability and revenue-generation likelihood.

To be competitive, you should ensure that your research has high industry, practical applicability and potential for generating revenue for the university. Your research should also be aligned with the university’s strategic directions and research areas/centres.

Align your research with your university’s research priorities

PhD to academia

For those reaching the end of their PhD journeys, these higher education cuts may lead to a reduction of the number of post-doctorate and early career academic (ECA) jobs available nationwide, increasing job competitiveness. (Check out the The Thesis Whisperer, who has written on competitiveness in academia).

Academia in Australia may become more competitive

Long term, cuts to Australian higher education could see some of our brightest PhDs moving internationally to secure academic jobs. This may impact Australia’s future standing as a contributor to international research.

If you wish to be competitive, during your PhD look towards publishing in academic journals and conferences, gain teaching and lecturing experience. Ensure there is a clear alignment between your research and your university’s research foci and specialisation.


Be vigilant and stay informed

Are you looking to continue working in the Australian higher education sector? Now is not the time to be complacent. Keep vigilant and informed with respect to how these funding changes will impact your university. Keeping in the loop will allow you to make informed choices today that will better ensure your career stability in the future.