Ministerial approval for changing PhD topic looms

As Australian universities struggle to attract overseas students following protracted border closures, concerns are rising that international postgraduates now in the country could soon be forced to leave.

A rule change from 1 July prevents foreign postgraduates from altering their courses, theses or research topics without written approval from the minister for home affairs, after she has satisfied herself that their new studies will not lead to “unwanted transfer of critical technology”.

The requirement is outlined in regulations ratified on 31 March, 10 days before Scott Morrison, who was then prime minister, called an election that ousted his conservative government. The Department of Home Affairs had consulted other federal government agencies about the change, but had not broached it with the university sector.

While the regulations’ wording fuelled initial fears that they could have an extremely broad impact, covering undergraduates and postgraduates in any discipline, companion documents confirm that the scope is limited to postgraduate students in science, technology and engineering disciplines. This is understood to include postgraduates upgrading their courses – from master’s to PhD, for example – or changing universities.

An explanatory statement says the intention is to restrict the new rule to fields covered by the List of Critical Technologies in the National Interest, which specifies 63 discrete technology areas.

Times Higher Education understands that the department plans to exempt six of these fields: advanced robotics, biofuels, electric batteries, photovoltaics, supercapacitors, and hydrogen and ammonia power.

But universities worry that the remaining 57 areas leave too much scope for overkill, as officials reflexively reject any request to change research topics in broad areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing.

If that happens, many students could find themselves unable to meet course requirements – and consequently, visa conditions. Thousands of overseas doctoral students ask to change their thesis topics each year because their supervisors have moved on or their research has not panned out as envisaged, among other reasons.

Critics scoff at the suggestion that a busy minister could approve these sorts of changes within reasonable time frames. They warn that the new rule could scare off foreign PhD students, jeopardising Australian research that relies on overseas doctoral students as both a talent pipeline and an affordable workforce – particularly in science and technology fields.

The International Education Association of Australia said the “opaque” rule had engendered “particular concerns” in China and a “media tsunami” in India. “It’s just another example where we send out mixed messages about welcoming, in this case, postgraduate students,” said chief executive Phil Honeywood.

THE understands that the department has privately told universities that the ministerial approval requirement will be introduced gradually, affecting few students.

A second change under the regulations, due to take effect by the end of the year, would oblige the minister to cancel students’ visas if she believed there was an “unreasonable risk of unwanted transfer of critical technology”. A third change entitles her to reject visa applications on similar grounds.

THE asked the office of home affairs minister Clare O’Neill what the new Labor government was doing to address the sector’s concerns about the regulations, and whether she had made space in her diary to deal with the extra workload. It had not responded by publication deadline.

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