Ministerial approval to change PhD subject looms

As Australian universities struggle to attract overseas students following prolonged border closures, there are growing fears that international postgraduate students currently in the country may soon be forced to leave.

A rule change from July 1 prevents overseas postgraduate students from altering their courses, theses or research topics without written approval from the Home Secretary, after she has ensured that their new studies will not result in “undesired transfer of critical technology”.

The demand is outlined in a settlement ratified on March 31, 10 days before Scott Morrison, then Prime Minister, calls an election that topples his Conservative government. The Department of the Interior had consulted with other federal government agencies about this change, but had not discussed it with the university sector.

While the wording of the regulations fueled initial fears that it could have an extremely wide impact, covering undergraduate and postgraduate students in all disciplines, accompanying documents confirm that the scope is limited to students of postgraduate in science, technology and engineering disciplines. This includes postgraduate students updating their courses – from masters to doctoral, for example – or changing universities.

An explanatory statement indicates that the intention is to restrict the new rule to areas covered by the list of critical technologies of national concern, which specifies 63 distinct technology areas.

Times Higher Education understands that the ministry is considering exempting six of these areas: advanced robotics, biofuels, electric batteries, photovoltaics, supercapacitors, and hydrogen and ammonia.

But universities fear the remaining 57 areas leave too much room for exaggeration, as officials reflexively reject any requests to change research topics in broad fields such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing. .

If this happens, many students may find themselves unable to meet course requirements – and therefore visa requirements. Thousands of foreign doctoral students ask each year to change the subject of their thesis because their supervisors have moved or their research has not gone as planned, among other reasons.

Critics scoff at the suggestion that a busy minister could sign off on these sorts of changes within a reasonable time frame. They warn the new rule could scare off overseas PhDs, jeopardizing Australian research which relies on overseas PhDs as both a talent pool and affordable workforce – particularly in science and technologies.

The International Education Association of Australia said the “opaque” rule had caused “particular concern” in China and a “media tsunami” in India. “This is just another example where we’re sending mixed messages about welcoming, in this case, postgraduate students,” chief executive Phil Honeywood said.

THE understands that the ministry has privately told universities that the ministerial approval requirement will be phased in, affecting few students.

A second change to the regulations, due to come into force by the end of the year, would require the minister to cancel student visas if she believes there is an ‘unreasonable risk of unwanted transfer of critical technology’ . A third change allows it to reject visa applications on similar grounds.

THE asked Home Secretary Clare O’Neill’s office what the new Labor government was doing to address industry concerns over regulation, and whether she had made room in her diary to deal with the burden of additional work. He had not responded by the publication deadline.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

Jessica C. Bell