Postgrad scholarship distribution questioned

Millions of dollars are distributed across postgraduate students from all faculties

Academics have raised concerns that the formula used to distribute postgraduate scholarships does not give an equal chance to students from all schools and faculties.

The scholarships in question are Research Training Program (RTP) stipends, worth  $27,000 a year for between two and three years, depending on the postgraduate study being undertaken.

In an Academic Board meeting on 28 February 2017, Professor David Emery asked the Board to consider whether the industry experience of veterinary medicine students was weighted highly enough in the single ranking system the University uses to award the scholarships.

Emery’s concerns point to a wider issue in the selection process: comparing the experience of applicants in fundamentally different disciplines.

The University of Sydney has attempted to overcome this difficulty by ranking applicants on a range of metrics including academic transcripts, research, professional experience, publications and significant contributions towards art or music. However, the weighting of different factors is not public information. Sources told Honi that this is kept private to prevent the system being ‘gamed’.

The system’s opacity raises questions about how the University values, for example, a spectacular performance in a music honours degree against ten years of professional experience in the workforce. The incomparable nature of these achievements suggest that qualifications in some fields could be arbitrarily valued over those from other disciplinary areas.

A University spokesperson said that “the RTP allocation process seeks to ensure the University attracts and offers scholarships to applicants with exceptional academic performance and research potential. The ranking guidelines are periodically reviewed, with input from all faculties, to ensure the changes are meeting these objectives”. The current system is to be trialled for the next two years before it is assessed by an independent party.

In the interim period, a cohort of capable PhD students may miss out on a RPT. Rejected applicants must then find alternative living allowances, apply for personal loans or internal scholarships to supplement part-time or full-time study. However, paid employment cannot interfere with internal study or research progress.

Ultimate oversight of the scholarships rests within a sub-committee of the Academic Board, the University’s peak academic decision-making body.

As the scholarships are federally funded, selection processes have to align with the Higher Education Support Act (2003) and must clearly outline for applicants the processes and entitlements in a Scholarship Policy by January 1st. As the 2017 application process began around the time the changes were being introduced, the University of Sydney has not released an official RTP Scholarship Policy at this point in time. Without it, the University has no method of communicating which portfolio accomplishments are weighted higher than others.

The allocation of RTPs has been a vexed issue in other respects, too. In 2017, the Turnbull government proposed international students be capped at 10% of total RTP recipients to increase opportunities for domestic applicants. In July 2016, the University asked the Department of Education and Training to abandon the cap in a formal submission to a departmental discussion paper. The University argued that “For example, in engineering, there are currently insufficient suitably qualified local applicants to further develop national research capacity in the field, so international recruiting is often necessary to support externally funded research with high quality candidates”. If the cap were not removed, the University suggested, disciplines with higher international student numbers would be disproportionately disadvantaged.

The University of Sydney is the largest provider of research training in the country. It strives to admit the highest calibre of research candidates. However, the arrangements in place need to ensure diversity and fairness for the next round of USyd postgraduates.