Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarships Scheme - A Critique

Richard Easther, Jolisa Gracewood, Amanda Peet and Mark C. Wilson

In August 1999, as part of its Bright Future package, the previous government announced the Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarships [TADS] scheme. The scholarships are aimed at the top 10% of post-graduate students, and offer an annual stipend of NZ$21,641 plus course fees and conference attendance costs. Their stated aim is ``to assist top PhD students to get the best education the world can provide.''

The motivation for the TADS programme is laudable, but it is inadequately researched and badly designed. Worst of all, it risks squandering resources that are needed elsewhere.

1. There is no evidence that students in the ``top 10% of post-graduate students'' who want to go overseas currently experience difficulty in obtaining financial support to attend world-class PhD programmes.

Many New Zealanders complete PhDs at international universities. Some are funded by prestigious scholarships (eg Rhodes, Prince of Wales, Commonwealth, Fulbright) but most are supported directly by the universities themselves, with money derived from research grants, university endowments, teaching assistantships, or private philanthropic organizations.

It has not been established that significant numbers of the students who are eligible for TADS and who wish to study overseas are unable to obtain funding to support their studies. Consequently, there is no guarantee that the TADS will boost the number of New Zealanders who obtain PhDs overseas.

Certainly, public funding could be specifically targeted to qualified students who are currently underrepresented in postgraduate programmes. Likewise, money could be earmarked for sending students to institutions that are unable to fully support doctoral students. However, the Bright Future package does not address these subtleties, and simply proposes to throw money at those who already have it.

2. Awarding Top Achiever scholarships for overseas study effectively subsidizes wealthy overseas institutions with scarce New Zealand funding.

The scholarships promise to pay students' fees and living expenses for the ``minimum time'' required for the degree. This requirement could not be strictly enforced, as the ``minimum time'' mandated by universities for a PhD is often as low as two years, but in practice the vast majority of students require at least five years to complete a PhD in the United States.

Moreover, the fees for good doctoral programs in the United States often exceed US$20,000 per year. Combined with a living allowance and travel expenses, the cost per student / per year could exceed NZ$70,000, leading to a total cost of at least NZ$350,000 for the entire degree.

As explained above, virtually all students who want to pursue post-graduate study overseas find financial support from outside New Zealand. Awarding Top Achiever Scholarships for international study thus effectively subsidizes overseas institutions by replacing the support that these institutions are already giving to New Zealand students.

3. The ``bond'' imposed by the Top Achiever scholarships is unenforceable and counter-productive.

Recipients of the Top Achiever scholarships will be ``bonded'' to work in New Zealand for the same number of years that they were supported by the scholarship. Realistically, this bond will be impossible to enforce, given that people who violate its terms will be outside New Zealand's legal jurisdiction.

Moreover, no guarantee is given that the scholarship recipient would be able to find work in New Zealand that used his or her expertise. Enforcing the terms of the bond would thus bar young researchers from continuing their training and professional development through post-doctoral fellowships overseas.

4. The opportunity cost of providing these scholarships is far higher than the benefits they are likely to bring.

The poor health of New Zealand's tertiary education and research sectors is well documented. New Zealand money unnecessarily allocated to support overseas PhDs is desperately needed elsewhere. For example, the money could:

  • Fund autonomous research institutes or ``centres of excellence''

  • Create new lecturing positions at tertiary institutions, or

  • Increase the amount of contestable research funding in the Marsden fund. (Currently fewer than 1 in 10 proposals are funded, and no one believes that we are even close to funding every worthwhile application.)

  • Address equity issues that prevent or discourage some students from undertaking post-graduate study.

Recommendations: We suggest freezing the TADS scheme, and make the following alternative suggestions for effectively addressing the targets of the TADS programme.

  1. Investigate the number of potential students who are unable to obtain funding for post-graduate study, both in New Zealand and overseas. This will reveal whether these scholarships meet a currently unsatisfied demand for research support.

  2. If there is a significant demand for support for overseas post-graduate study that is currently not be fulfilled, assess the relative benefit of supporting overseas PhDs, compared with other possible uses of the money.

  3. Design alternative grants, or partial scholarships that may be held in conjunction with other sources of funding, that allow young New Zealanders to gain experience in the global academic and research community.

    A major drawback of staying at home to do a PhD is New Zealand's isolation and lack of some specialised research resources and equipment. What is needed is a policy that enables young New Zealand-based researchers to obtain the benefits of studying overseas, collaborate with international researchers, and gain access to a wide variety equipment and resources.

    To address this problem, we strongly suggest providing grants to enable New Zealand PhD students to travel overseas for periods ranging from a few weeks to a year at a time. This money would support attendance at international conferences or specialised post-graduate courses and ''summer schools.''

    Students enrolled in a PhD programme at a New Zealand university could also be supported as visiting scholars at overseas institutions for a semester or a year. Visiting scholars do not normally pay fees, but can study and attend classes alongside their peers, and consult with academics at the host institution. The cost per student of such a scheme would be a fraction of what the TADS policy proposes to spend on overseas PhDs, and thus the same pool of money would benefit many more young scholars.

    Imaginative, responsive, ``best of both worlds'' schemes like these will ultimately broaden and strengthen connections between New Zealand and the international research community, connections that are vital if New Zealand is to be part of a truly global circulation of knowledge.

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