Money makes the world go around

By WittyKnitter

This post is cross-posted to Thesiswhisperer.  Clearly, it’s aimed at research students (PhD and MPhil), but I thought it might also be of interest to readers here. The funding of research training is one of the things I’ve discussed in my PhD.

Do you feel that your institution is putting pressure on you to submit your PhD?

A lot of students complain about this. They feel under pressure to complete and move along, but they are often not really clear about why this pressure is put on them. It feels quite personal sometimes, as if no-one really cares about you or your project. So, let me ask you a question: What do you think you cost your institution every year?

If you don’t have a scholarship, it may not seem much: some hours of your supervisors’ time, maybe a desk and a computer, access to the library and, of course, to the internet. But there’s all the infrastructure those things require (buildings, plumbing, wires and cables, heating and cooling, books and journal subscriptions, staff to keep everything running so it’s there when you need it). You might have sat in on a taught class, or have attended research methods training, or an orientation program. You might work in a lab and need special equipment, or use chemicals or other renewables that incur ongoing costs.Even this blog is partially subsidised – by the Australian National University who pays Inger a wage).

You might need to travel to see your participants or to do some of your research away from your institution. You may have a scholarship, and funding that your faculty or the university makes available for software, travel to conferences and other things that are part of the PhD experience. And there’s quite a bit of administrators’ time taken up in processes like annual reviews, ethics processes and examination. And don’t forget your supervisors have undergone some kind of training for supervision at the institution.

All of these things are pretty much taken for granted as being available for free at Australian Universities, where domestic research students usually don’t have to pay fees.

The money to support them comes from the government, which provides money to institutions for research students. Research is assumed to benefit the nation, so the government invests in training people to do it. A series of arcane and complex formulas are used by the government to decide how much money it will give each institution to fund PhDs and Masters by research.

Every year, Universities make a series of reports to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE). These contain an accounting of the grant money that academic staff been granted in the last twelve months; a list of ‘countable’ items that academic staff have had published (what is countable is decided by a government body called Excellence in Research Australia (ERA); the number of Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students students who are enrolled; and the number of those students who completed their degree in the last twelve months.

At the same time as these figures are being generated and collected, the government is deciding how much money it will put into research and research training, what it calls the Joint Research Engagment (or JRE).

In 2012 the JRE was $1.63 billion; in 2013 it will be $1.67 billion, which is divided among the universities (if you’re really interested, there are a lot more details here.) A lot of this money (called a block grant) is for institutions to provide postgraduate award scholarships (APA), and to offset fees for domestic HDR students. How the amount each institution gets is calculated depends on the returns from the university for the previous year in three categories:

  • HDR student completions are weighted at 50 per cent
  • research income (successful grant applications) is weighted at 40 per cent
  • research publications are weighted at 10 per cent

Many more complex calculations are done to decide exactly how much money each institution will receive, but you can see that getting grant money and graduating research students are the two most important things a University can do in order to continue receiving the money it needs to do more research and take on HDR students in the future.

Also, you can see that half of the money that’s received depends on how many students have completed their degrees. So the university has been supporting its HDR students while they are enrolled – up to four years for a full-time student, and eight years for a part-time student, and most of the money for this isn’t paid until the year after graduation – between five and ten years after a student starts their degree.

This funding model affects what Universities can provide for their students.

A report done for the government by DeloitteAccessEconomics (pdf) suggests that wealthier universities match the money they receive from the government from their own resources up to 69% – they add $2 to every $3 they get from the government. These Universities will be able to be more generous with inter-library loans, for example, or provide better working spaces or more conference money, or some UPA awards to add to the APAs the government pays for.

Some universities can’t or don’t do this, and their students probably won’t even know they could have had more elsewhere.

So how do you contribute to the costs of your PhD? If you’re part of a team that has been granted money in a competitive process such as ARC or NHMRC, you may have earned your fees and even your scholarship yourself; you are probably doing research that is contributing to a much bigger project that will bring publications and more grant money in the future.

Have you published anything in an academic journal or a book chapter? That’s good for you and will help your professional profile, but unless the name of an academic staff member appears on it the government won’t count it in the ERA roundup.

You may have helped organise a conference, or contributed to the running of seminar series in your department, and that will also have improved your professional skills. But by far the best way you can contribute towards the cost of your own research degree in Australia is by finishing it. Many don’t; statistics show that between a quarter and a third of research students drop out. If you feel you’re under to pressure to complete your degree, this may be why: the institution wants the money it will get when you complete because it’s been supporting you in various invisible ways for years.


  1. conrad
    Posted March 6, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I think that’s far too personal — By and large, the institution wants the money any way it can get it, which is why no-one gives a rats about the standards dropping for PhDs (and not just in Aus). It’s basically placing a bet on the student to finish, so it’s not clear to me how much responsibility the student has, and I don’t see why they should care about some abstract entity known as “The University of X”, especially now they’re basically corporate entities. Should I care about eating quickly at, say, McDonald’s, so a table is free for another person they can make money out of? I don’t think so.

    The main reason students should finish is for their own good. If they have some sort of decent relationship with their supervisor, then the other reason is to help them. Abstracts corporate entities, alternatively, are just that.

  2. Adrien
    Posted March 7, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see why they should care about some abstract entity known as “The University of X”, especially now they’re basically corporate entities.

    Because, as the post says, said corporate entities are very expensive structures that facilitate the whole shebang?

    I do wonder if the way in which it is done, the methods of assessing ‘value’ are conductive to the sort of thing PhDs etc are supposed to contribute. A PhD, as I understand it, gives you claim to high expertise in some field or other. If you are under pressure to churn out a dissertation will you still be able to truly claim to have some valuable understanding of the subject?

    There is of course the existence of a significant export industry and the irony that industrial standardization facilitates much larger scope for education whilst at the same time bearing a tendency to drive iconoclasts to the periphery.

  3. Posted March 8, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    On a tangent, WK, when some of this measurement stuff first came out, I asked as an adjunct of the University of New England what I should provide to them to demonstrate my contribution against the criteria so that it could be included in the stats. I was told that I didn’t count in statistical terms since I wasn’t a staff member.

    That actually had a considerable impact because I got annoyed. I stoppped some of the academic support stuff I had been doing. It also (my perception) affected the University approach. They became less willing to provide support to adjuncts because it didn’t directly contribute to the measurable targets. Sad, really.

  4. Posted March 8, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Don’t agree with conrad, and sympathise with Jim. A good description of the ways things are (at least, as I understand it). But it isn’t really true that only research money is spent on research, or that only teaching money is spnet on teaching. I doubt that any university can work out where the money actually goes, and much depends on the relative proportion of time that academic staff actually (not nominally) devote to research — and to teaching.

  5. conrad
    Posted March 9, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Adrien and Don, I really can’t understand why you guys think that people have some moral reason to help an abstract entity that exists for non-altruistic reasons. This reminds me of nationalism except at the corporate level.

  6. Adrien
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Conrad, I’m not spruiking some kind of corporate team spirit, on the contrary. I have some deep reservations about the conflation of education with multinational trade and branding etc. But the apparatus that provides tuition and awards grades that translate into qualifications are what they are. Certain obligations obtain.

    I don’t think one owes a university spiritual allegiance but to despise it as ‘corporate’ whilst at the same time enjoying its benefits is hardly solid ground.

  7. wittyknitter
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Hi everyone. Sorry, I haven’t been around for a few days.
    Conrad, I don’t think that a University can be dismissed as simply a corporate entity. Some of its actions are about its nature as a corporation, but some are about its identity as a teaching institution, or as a research institution, or as a fundraiser (through its alumni arm). These are all part of how a modern Uni functions. I was simply making the point that students get a fiar bit when they are given the chance to do a PhD, and I wanted to expose some of the less-known mechanisms that get money from the federal government to universities, and some of the ways that Unis spend that mpney on research training.
    Adrien, there is some evidence that PhD’s have been tamed of their ‘wilder side’ in a risk-averse culture, yes. This is a shame. in my view. Mine isn’t very conventional, either in structure of subject, and I’ve taken a fair few risks with it, including criticising my own institution (where I’m employed as well as enrolled). We shall see whether they pay off in the next few months.
    Don, you’re right: Uni funding is a very inexact science, and I’m far from an accountant or economist to be able to trace such things. I really hate the tensions that are created between ‘teaching’ and ‘research’ – and of course, no-one in a policy position can quite make up their mind whether supervising a PhD is either of these, or both, or more than both. So funding of the PhD is especially fraught. It’s not even always clear which central area of the Uni is responsible for PhD students or PhD processes.

  8. Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink


    I don’t think of any university as an abstract entity. I see them as people in particular buildings in a particular place or places, doing familiar things (since I spent most of my working life in universities in Australia, the UK and the US, and have visited twenty or so universities in Asia and Europe).

    I’m not sure that I ‘help’ them, either. I write about them, supervise students in them, examine theses, give occasional lectures and so on. I don’t do it for the money, which is never of any quantity, but because I benefited from the system when I was young, and returning the favour now seems sensible to me.

    Nor do i think that the standards have been dropping. It’s always hard to say. What is true is that the scope and scale of PhDs in areas with which I am familiar have narrowed over time, but that’s mainly because those of us who did ours early had large empty tracts that were ours to occupy. The more PhD theses that are done, the smaller the tract necessarily becomes.

  9. conrad
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Adrien — I don’t despise them, I just don’t seem them as very different to other businesses these days. I wouldn’t have said that 20 years ago incidentally (and its worse in Aus than the UK).

    “Nor do i think that the standards have been dropping.”

    I think this is almost indesputable actually (at least for Aus and the UK). This is true even at the highest level — try looking up the changes Cambridge made about 5 years ago where PhDs went from “something good” to
    “something big”. (I couldn’t find them with a quick search sorry). If Cambridge does that, you can just imagine what every other university does.

    There are many reasons for this. One is just pressure to get students to complete in 3 years. A second is that in areas like the biological sciences, students are often used as cheap labour and so their own intellectual contribution is often minimized. A third is that the undergraduate standards have deteriated, so the students just arn’t as good, and we don’t have a system like the US to fix this (and never will given it takes 5 years!). A fourth is that there are many more of them, which means many more people are supervising them, and these are often people who arn’t really good at research themself (especially in Aus where students don’t seem to care about this when they choose a supervisor). A fifth is that the growth in PhDs has come in areas where it is relatively easy to obtain them.

    All of these things mean that the main thing that matters these days is publications in good journals (in most areas) — 40 years ago, just having a PhD was a big deal. Yet, most PhD students won’t even achieve publish anything.

  10. Posted March 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink


    OK, yo think standards are dropping, but can’t give any rally good evidence. I don’t think they have been, and I can’t either. All I can do is talk bout the twenty or so I have examined over the past forty years, the last one two or three years ago. (I thought it was careful, and powerful.)P
    I agree that there are many more PhDs, and that the degree doesn’t have the scarcity or value it once did. That’s true of all qualifications.

    I am unaware of any area where it is easy to obtain a PhD. I regard the degree as the equivalent of a cruel and usual punishment, and much prefer the American version, which I tried without success to introduce in my own university a long time ago.

  11. Posted March 12, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, first sentence should be ‘OK, you think standards are dropping, but can’t give any really good evidence.’

    There should not be a ‘P’ at the end of the first paragraph, but there should be space between that and the next paragraph.

  12. kvd
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    OK, yo think standards are dropping, but can’t give any rally good evidence. I don’t think they have been, and I can’t either.

    Seems like a quite even-handed summary from people who seem well placed to know. Only they possibly don’t.

    Don, without seeking personal details, I’d be interested to know what the subject of that last PhD was, and where, how, if, the applicant is now employed?

  13. Posted March 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink


    The subject was a blend of the science and politics to do with ‘climate change’.

    I don’t know where the successful PhD candidate is now, but if you want me to, I’ll ask the supervisors, neither of whom I knew (or the student, for that matter).

  14. kvd
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the response Don. It was just a passing thought, so no need to pursue it further. My daughter has a PhD, and has been with AusAid for years; my niece has her Masters, and is now pursuing a PhD, paid for by some company scheme or other – who I’m assuming will employ her on conclusion.

    I just like it when education produces an ‘end’.

  15. Adrien
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Conrad – There are many reasons for this….

    The negative feedback loop that passes for culture at this minute? 🙂

  16. conrad
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    “OK, yo think standards are dropping, but can’t give any rally good evidence.”

    That’s of course because no-one is willing to collect it — not unlike almost all areas of university performacne relating to what students learn. The same arguments are made about undergraduate stuff (i.e., the standards are declining), an they’re easier to measure than PhDs.

    Alternatively, I did give you a number of input factors which have changed, so unless you’re denying them, then what you’re really saying is that students have got much better to compensate for this.This seems unlikely to me, especially

    “I wonder how much of this is a sciences versus arts divide?”

    It’s not really science vs. arts — as I noted above as my exploitive example, it’s whether you are going to a big lab as a cheap worker or not. There are arts people that force students to look at the same-boring-old-topic so this would be the equivalent as the lab-slave science topics. Alternatively, the lab-slave positions are much more common in science. You can of course get good lab positions, but you really need to have a-priori info (and about supervisors) which almost no-one has.

  17. Old woman of the nor
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    This whole article is weird in that it talks about the Government giving out money as though it is the government who makes the money. ALL money comes from taxes – governments do not create wealth at all – it just disperses other people’s money!
    Perhaps universities should remind the staff and students that they have a debt to society and to not waste anything.

  18. M-H
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Gosh, I don’t agree that governments don’t create wealth with our taxes. I’d be quite cross if I thought they were just giving it away. In the PhD, wealth is created in a number of ways. The students who do a PhD thereby get a chance of getting a high-taxing job. The research they do, say in medicine or engineering, has the opportunity to make a lot of money for biotech and other industries. But I didn’t mean for people to see it like that. The government funds PhDs for a number of reasons, I just wanted to make it clear that the money for a PhD doesn’t just float down out of the air: it’s budgeted for and distributed according to certain rules. I think it’s empowering for students to know that, that some institution or supervisor isn’t being nice to them, letting them do a PhD: the institution is actually doing quite nicely out of it in various ways – not all to do with actual money.

  19. kvd
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    M-H so are you studying in medicine, biotech, or engineering?

    Whatever, best wishes. We certainly need more of such people, so I’m pleased to read that the money I throw ‘up into the air’ (aka taxes) is being so usefully spent.

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