National Mental Health Week 2014

mentalhealthweekbanner-940x300Saturday October 11th marked National Coming Out Day as well as the last day of Australian Mental Health Week.

In the past week, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) has run a social media campaign to raise the awareness of mental illness amongst postgraduate students.

On average, one in ten postgraduate students experience anxiety, and one in four young Australians are likely to experience mental illness in a given year. This is further exacerbated by the sense of isolation experienced during one’s postgraduate years and the lack of appropriate services in our Universities to deal with mental illness for specific equity groups.

“International students leave behind family and friends and face isolation in Australia. Fortunately, when things get rough, there is help available” said Walter Robles, CAPA International Students Officer.

CAPA also acknowledges those people who have taken the opportunity to come out this weekend in light of National Coming Out Day.

“Mental health is compounded for LGBTI students who experience institutionalised discrimination from their universities and a lack understanding of LGBTI-specific issues in the mental health sector” Angelus Morningstar, CAPA Queer Officer said.

“In today’s society where women continue to face increasing inequalities across a range of social structural and psycho-social spheres, it is critical that women are able to seek support and guidance that is relevant and sensitive to their circumstances” said CAPA Women’s Officer Erin Lynn.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students suffer from mental illness due to grief and loss caused by dispossession, cultural dislocation, stolen generations, and removal from family, discrimination and racism, trauma and abuse, and social disadvantage. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are three times more likely to feel high or very high levels of psychological distress and are more than twice as likely to be hospitalised for ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ than were other Australians” Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, NIPAAC Liaison Officer said.

If you are experiencing a loss of social and emotional well-being please contact beyondblue, Lifeline, your state’s Gay and Lesbian support service, your university counseling service or your local mental health service.

beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 /

Lifeline: 13 11 14 /

Opening Statement to the Senate Committee Inquiry into the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

Meghan B. Hopper, National President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations

Thank you to Senators of the Committee for inviting the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations to appear in relation to our submission into the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations is Australia’s longest continuously-operating national student peak body and represents over 325,000 postgraduate coursework and Higher Degree by Research students, in conjunction with thirty affiliate student organisations at Universities across Australia.  Our role is to provide a national voice for postgraduate and research students, to keep them abreast of the policy that affects them, and to represent them to Government, industry, and to the sector.

The largest of those affiliate organisations is the Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Melbourne, and with me today I have Mr James Smith, President of the Graduate Students’ Association, who is able to provide the perspective of postgraduate students on campus, as I provide the perspective of postgraduate students nationally.

We have presented to the Inquiry a twenty-seven page submission of our concerns with the Bill and related changes to higher education policy, and this submission covers a range of policy areas.  For the purpose of today we would like to focus on the following key areas of concern for postgraduate students: cuts to the Research Training Scheme of $174.7 million or 10 per cent overall; the proposal to introduce the ability for Universities to charge fees on Higher Degrees by Research of up to $3,900 per year; and indexation of HELP debt interest against the 10 Year Bond Rate up to a maximum of 6 per cent.

The Government’s argument in proposing this package of changes has been that graduates of higher education can expect strong correlating employment and payment outcomes.  Where postgraduates and the introduction of fees on research degrees is concerned however, this is increasingly not a claim that stands up to fact.

On September 17 this year, the Australian Financial Review reported that whilst enrolment figures for domestic postgraduate by coursework students have increased 25 per cent in the last five years, graduate outcomes for Masters by Coursework students are the worst on record at 17.9 per cent unemployment on average, 19.6 per cent for women[1].  Put simply, there are not enough jobs for the number of postgraduate coursework students that Australia is training, and this will continue to be further exacerbated by examples such as “the Melbourne Model” and at the University of Western Australia, where students are required to undertake postgraduate study on top of a generalist undergraduate degree to qualify in a professional field.

Coming to higher degrees by research, a report by the Australian Council Of Learned Academies (ACOLA) in 2012 found that those surveyed ranked “working on interesting and important issues” as their greatest motivation in pursuing a research career, and yet uncertain job prospects, short-term contracts and unrealistic work-loads were major drawbacks to participation in the research workforce.  PhD students already say they do not have enough support to do a PhD, with stipends, where they are available, being cited as too low, funding to attend conferences minimal, and too much pressure placed on them to complete in too short a period of time.[2]

The NTEU has repeatedly found that the academic workforce is subject to increased casualisation and workplace uncertainty and yet we know that academic careers remain the goal for an overwhelming quantity of higher degree by research students.

Australian industry is still not predisposed to engage PhD graduates and there is not enough incentive provided for them to do so.  Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb identified a possible “link between the number of researchers employed in industry, and the perception industry has of universities’ ability to prepare their graduates,” noting that 59% of Australian businesses feel that Universities and schools adequately prepare tomorrow’s innovative leaders, and arguing that “there is a large divide between our most academically qualified citizens– our PhD graduates – and the industries that fuel our economy”.[3]

A 2010 report by Brailsford into the motivations of PhD students determined that “Limited financial support was important in the decision-making process. Without funding it is questionable whether the ‘pull’ of the doctorate would have out-weighed the ‘push’ from the former career.”[4]

The full-time PhD experience is an isolating one with increasing uncertainty of employment outcome and no guarantee of scholarship support.  A PhD student chooses to weather these pitfalls in order to contribute to the nation’s knowledge in a unique field of research.  To add an extra hurdle by charging fees on research degrees will only further discourage our potential future research leaders.  This change at its very essence, embodies charging individuals to come to work.

The changes to the Research Training Scheme are amongst the very few in this package that impact on students regardless of enrolment date.  The profound unfairness of charging fees on students who enrolled prior to the announcement of these changes is so obvious as to barely require acknowledgement.

We strongly reject the Minister’s attempts to publicly hold Senators and the sector to ransom by threatening cuts to research in the event that deregulation is unsuccessful.  On October 2, the Minister said in Question Time that “The simple fact is that if these reforms are not passed … The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme [NCRIS] … will not continue, meaning that terrific research infrastructure will not be rolled out in our universities. The Future Fellowships scheme, which is a scholarship for midcareer researchers … will not go ahead … That means that the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and the Future Fellowships will end.”[5]  On August 24 Fairfax reported that the Minister had refused to rule out research cuts without reform.[6]  This has placed already worried research students, seeking future research careers, in a profound state of stress and uncertainty.

We also express our strong concern around changes to the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme and to ABSTUDY and AUSTUDY and with the poor publicity of, and consultation around, those changes, and whilst we know that the representatives joining us today on the phone from the National Indigenous Postgraduate Association Aboriginal Corporation will discuss these impacts I would welcome the opportunity to touch upon this further in response to questions.

In closing, we wish to put on the public record our disappointment with the absence of any consultation by the Government, with student leaders, in relation to the Bill prior to this point.

Universities have a number of stakeholders to whom they answer.  At the end of the day however, students are the number one stakeholder cohort to whom higher education providers, and higher education policy makers, are responsible.  With the exception of certain political party youth wings, the changes embodied by the Bill have been uniformly rejected by students, and this is evident in the fifteen submissions to this Inquiry made by student representative groups and peak bodies.[7]

We ask Senate representatives to reflect on this today and to act in the best interest of the end user of higher education, the student, in choosing to reject this Bill.  Thank you.

  • [1] – 15.9% for men.
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