Australia: Are PhD entry requirements too low?
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Australia: Are PhD entry requirements too low?

Australia: Are PhD entry requirements too low?

Entry requirements for PhD programmes in Australian universities need reform, a new report has urged.

Far too many are being admitted, with the admission rate described as “quite high”, according to the Design Options for the Future Doctorate report by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher
Education at the University of Melbourne. A third of experts surveyed indicated that more than 60 percent of their applicants were admitted, while around half of experts said they admitted more than 40 percent of applicants.

“Such high admission rates raise questions about entry standards, and about program and student alignment and expectations,” the report said. Twenty-eight universities participated in the survey, while 673 graduates and 338 institution experts contributed data.

Project leader Hamish Coates described admissions as an area “where Australia lags”.

“Many other countries have more robust entrance tests and interviews that give more weight to considerations of the students’ capability and prospects. We allocate large amounts of public funds to people to do PhDs without really any concrete evidence as to whether they’re going to have a fruitful outcome,” Coates told Times Higher Education.

“We need a much better process of helping you as an aspirant PhD applicant understand the odds of success as you go through the programme, and the odds of employment at the end of it.”

When asked to list necessary conditions in student selection that could predict doctoral success, institutions listed academic ability, supervisory capacity and language competence. The report pointed out that there is less focus on “outcome-related factors” as well as “professional and industry considerations”.

“In general, doctoral experts report weighing people’s capacity to obtain a doctorate as more central to selection than their capacity to contribute beyond research communities, during or after their program,” the report wrote.

Yet, this potential to be a future prospect for a particular field should be an important factor in selection. Admission to a programme “that’s not going to lead anywhere” should not be allowed, according to Professor Coates.

“The focus should not be getting people in. Admission rates are high in Australia. It should be getting people out and contributing.”

Transparency is another problem Australian doctoral admissions face. Data on application and selection – such as number of applications, offers or acceptances – are not readily available as universities are not obligated to make such data public.

Despite this, the report found that the main entry pathways into a doctoral degree are the Australian Bachelor Honours Degree, the Master’s Degree (Coursework), where there is some research
component or preliminary research training in methods, and the Master’s Degree (Research).

Each pathway contains its own issues and constraints, according to the 2016 Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) report. These include lack of international recognition for the Australian Bachelor Honours degree as well as funding and structural inconsistencies in the Master’s Degree (Coursework), and declining enrolments for the Master’s Degree (Research).

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