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'Not a priority for anyone': How COVID-19 has impacted research students in Australia

साल ख़त्म होते हुए भी नहीं काम हो रहीं शोधार्थियों की मुश्किलें (Representative Image) Source: Getty Images/franckreporter

The pandemic has impacted the university students in more ways than one. While completion of projects remains a major concern, funding options have run thin too.

Corona Virus singlehandedly brought the world to a near standstill this year. Almost every sphere of life now bears implications of the pandemic, and among the worst-hit are higher education research students.

According to the research report ‘Higher education Facts and Figures 2020’ published by Universities Australia in October 2020, the total number of students completing a higher degree by research has more than doubled in the past two decades. While domestic students increased by 52 per cent, international research completions saw a massive jump of 300 per cent. Clearly, Research has developed as an important component of the Australian education system.

Key points

  • The end of the year has not meant an end of problems for research students.
  • Disrupted fieldwork and bleak funding have left students in limbo.
  • Supervisors become the pillars for students to rely on.

The research scholarships and the annual reviews announced at the end of the year are impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though international and domestic students faced different problems, both cohorts saw their researches brought to a halt for the lack of fieldwork.

Fieldwork is the core of any research, particularly in arts and humanities. It involves meeting different people, interviewing them, involving them in the process as a part of the research.

Sanjana Bhardwaj is an international student researching the Indian diaspora in Sydney. She told SBS Hindi that after beginning the theoretical work of her research in July 2019, she was supposed to begin her full-fledged fieldwork in February 2020, but the onset of pandemic stalled her progress.

"Once the pandemic hit, my participants had their own set of problems and the research was not a priority for anyone."

Rubab, a domestic student researching on the migration of Middle Eastern Muslim women to Australia, is in a similar situation. While Sanjana had just begun her research, Rubab was to graduate this year, which has been postponed to 2021.

“I cannot graduate without fieldwork. Before COVID-19 hit, I could leave flyers all over the city cafes and mosques, and the participants would themselves reach out to me. It has been an uphill task to find participants now, and the ones I do find have to be interviewed online.”

Both Rubab and Sanjana feel that face-to-face proximity brought trust in a researcher-participant relationship, which helps a researcher understand much more than what was just being said. 

Another major challenge for research aspirants and students this year has been funding for the research.

The Universities Australia report states that in the year 2018, a total of $12 billion was provided as research funding, 56.1 per cent of which came from the internal funding of the universities.

The closure of international borders and the absence of international students have left the universities in a financial lurch this year, and research funding has taken a direct hit. It has been, however, more difficult for international students than the domestic ones.

“At the end of it, I am a domestic student. Even in the uncertainty of the job market, I have Centrelink and other organisations to fall back on. On the other hand, my international friends have no such support and hence have faced tougher times,” says Rubab.

Both researchers opine that while the research limbo and isolation from home took a major toll on them, regular contact with their research supervisors kept them going. Now with the government announcing a $3 billion package for research funding, Sanjana is hopeful of some relief.

“This looks like the first ray of hope in many months,” she says.

Both emphasise that staying in close touch with family, friends and their respective supervisors has helped them deal with the major stress of these times.

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