No Backpay for Offshore PhD Students

No Backpay for Offshore PhD Students

Otago losing international applicants, halfheartedly tries to sweeten deal

Remote PhD students will not be receiving a stipend from the University, even with a scholarship.

89 students have commenced their PhD at Otago remotely since the pandemic began. 13 have managed to enter New Zealand, and only seven of those students will be receiving a monthly stipend, according to a memo from the Senate to the University Council. If you don’t know what these bodies are, that’s okay. They mainly make decisions that affect your bank account.

Offshore PhD students with a doctoral scholarship will not receive a cash payment. They will effectively receive a tuition fee waiver, in part because it’s cheaper for the Uni to not have to make overseas payments. For now, they pay tuition at the domestic rate, and their scholarship covers it. If the Tertiary Education Committee decides that offshore PhD students will have to start paying international fees, which they might, then this tuition fee waiver will no longer be a full ride. Fortunately for them, staying at the domestic rate was a “core aspect” of this proposal.

It would be “a loss”, according to the University Senate, for an offshore student to begin a PhD here with a tuition fee waiver and then not complete the degree at Otago. The “loss” they are referring to is the money that the Uni put up to support the student, not the product of their research. “At least”, they note, this would be offset by Student Achievement Component funding. The Uni will have lost money by supporting someone who transferred out, but their academic progress still makes the Uni look good and receive more government money. 

The report hinted that borders may open in mid-2022. If an offshore student were to start in 2021 and arrive in 2022, they would only receive two years of the stipend, for the time they spent on Aotearoa’s soil. But their degree would still take three years. “Every project would have to be three years to have a stipend,” said Physics Professor Richard Blaikie, the Deputy VC for Research and Enterprise. All PhDs at Otago take at least three years to complete.

Sophie Barham, OUSA’s Postgraduate Rep, said that the University has tried to make things easier for offshore students blocked by the border, but that “students have the right to be compensated for all their work, and this includes the work they do while not in the country." Without a stipend and without savings, PhD students will have to find work, in addition to the work they are doing for the Uni, to cover the cost of living.

While Otago has been trying to figure out what to do with all this, prospective students have enrolled in other universities. This loss of potential money worries the University. A “remote-start” approach would hopefully lock in some of these students before they look elsewhere, encouraging the chances that their research outputs boost Otago’s performance indicators and that their tuition fees end up in Otago’s coffers. 

Modern universities are businesses, and this is reflected in the language of the University Senate’s report. Money was the dominant motivator for helping offshore PhD students, not research. What was discussed was not “I hope that they study here and contribute their intellect,” but rather “I hope they study here and contribute their coin.”

With international prospective rates on the decline, Otago is trying to sweeten the deal. This new measure would allow offshore PhD students to receive a tuition-fee waiver, but not receive the monthly stipend that they would if they were in Dunedin. Upon arrival, potentially in mid-2022, these students would begin to receive payments, but no back-pay for the time they spent offshore.

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2021.
Posted 3:19pm Sunday 25th July 2021 by Fox Meyer.