‘Generation of research workers’ at risk in New Zealand

Stalled research driving students into poverty and bleak career prospects, paper warns

November 22, 2020
Empty lab
Source: iStock

Covid-19 could deprive New Zealand’s universities of a mainstay of their workforce as poverty and vanishing opportunities force research students to reconsider their futures.

A paper warns that academia could become intolerable for many PhD students as they contend with lab closures and bewildering institutional support policies. As research grinds to a halt, with many students unable to access their equipment, some also risk losing their livelihoods.

“The general advice to PhD students from universities…has been to suspend their studies or move to part-time registration if they are significantly disrupted,” says the paper, published by the New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems. But co-author Ellen Hume said this could force students to reduce or relinquish their main source of income.

Ms Hume, who chairs a network of research students associated with the centre, said PhD students with scholarships were already struggling to cover rent, power, health costs and other necessities with stipends worth less than the minimum wage. Going part time would reduce that income stream even further, she said. “That’s a really hard choice, particularly if you’re trying to support a family.”

Students would struggle to use their free hours to earn money anyway, the paper suggests, because paid tutoring and marking work – “vital supplementary income for many” – has dried up as universities slash costs and shift assessments online.

Meanwhile, those students able to maintain their studies confront demands to achieve “business as usual” even though the pandemic has reduced access to their supervisors and all but ended opportunities for “informal learning” from colleagues and conferences.

“Many students rely on university facilities to provide an appropriate work environment and do not have the luxury of a dedicated at-home workspace – or even a warm, dry bedroom,” the paper adds.

Looking ahead, students face a job market “with severely limited domestic postdoctoral and other research opportunities, while, simultaneously, universities implement hiring freezes and make cuts to their already precarious workforce”.

The paper says that while PhD graduate numbers have tripled over the past two decades, job opportunities in academia have remained steady. “Current students are facing an already broken career pipeline and it will only be exacerbated by this pandemic.

“The prevailing wisdom of academia, to uproot one’s life and chase the promise of work overseas, is no longer justifiable as international opportunities become inaccessible.”

Ms Hume said it was too early to tell whether Covid would goad students to abandon their PhDs. “A lot of people have probably been wanting to ride out the storm,” she said, adding that the pandemic’s longevity would be a determining factor.

“The academic career pipeline is already broken, and the pandemic may be making it much worse – perhaps that will influence whether people think it’s worth finishing.”

The paper recommends funded extensions for postgraduate students who are yet to complete their research, along with grants for conference attendance and travel when borders reopen. A cross-institutional working group should also be established to set national standards aimed at improving the research degree experience.

Universities should create more postdoctoral positions for graduates by “reducing overheads”, the paper adds. Ms Hume said institutions needed to face up to these issues immediately. “Otherwise we could see the loss of a whole generation of researchers, along with diversity and equity gains.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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