Updates from the MGA HDR Online Forum


The MGA held an online open forum for HDR students on 11 August 2020.  The main concerns and questions raised at that meeting are being followed up by the MGA. 


This report summarises the concerns raised by students at the forum, along with the MGA’s planned action.  For updates on how our lobbying is progressing, please go to MGA Action on COVID-19


Communication

1. HDR students have found the lack of communication from the university frustrating and demoralising, and they would like this to be improved. Some students have appreciated the level of communication from their individual faculties, but communication from the university overall has been poor.

The MGA acknowledges that students are dissatisfied with communication from the University during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have communicated this to the Chair of the Graduate Research Committee (GRC), Monash Graduate Research Office (MGRO) and Faculty Deans.

The MGA has lobbied the Vice-Chancellor to have the HDR information on the University Fact Sheet moved to its own tab on the front page of the Fact Sheet – this has now been actioned.

The MGA has requested that all new information relating to HDRs be included in the University Fact Sheet as well as promoted and highlighted in the Monash Graduate Research Office’s regular newsletter going out to HDRs – this has been agreed to and will be actioned by the Chair of GRC and MGRO.

The MGA has requested that information relating to the availability under special circumstances of milestone, candidature and leave extensions be advertised widely to HDR students – this has been agreed to and will be actioned by MGRO through the faculties.

The MGA has recommended that when a new event occurs (such as stage 4 lockdown), students would appreciate an acknowledgement of the situation and confirmation that the university will do all it can to support them, even if the University has not yet had the time to react and make firm decisions on any action.


2. Students in some faculties, who are also members of university staff, are receiving daily updates from their faculties regarding the current COVID-19 situation, but HDR students who are not also staff, do not receive these emails. As such these students feel devalued and abandoned, and they are not promptly made aware of key changes affecting their research.

This is a matter for each faculty to decide upon.  As such, the MGA has written to every Faculty Dean to request that all HDR students be included on staff emails relating to COVID-19.


3. Would representatives from the MGRO / GRC please hold a forum so students can ask questions and receive answers from people who are the decision makers?

The MGA has requested that representatives from the Monash Graduate Research Office and Graduate Research Committee hold a Q&A forum with students.  The MGA has offered to host and help advertise the forum – we are waiting on a response.


Scholarship, candidature and milestone extensions

4. The government has allowed universities to extend PhD candidature to 4.5 years, and Masters Research to 2.5 years, but Monash has been silent on this matter. What is their position?

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC to ask for clarification on the University’s position on this matter.    The MGA has recommended that the opportunity to apply for a candidature extension in line with the government allowance should be offered and advertised to all HDR students. 


5. Many students feel that the automatic scholarship extension to 3.5 years is inadequate in light of these new lockdowns which are significantly affecting their research progress. Many students would have obtained this extension at the end of their candidature even if their research had not been disrupted by COVID-19.

Students feel that a further extension is warranted, given many have not been able to make meaningful progress on their research since March and lockdowns are likely to continue until at least October, much longer than was initially anticipated.

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC to propose that the University consider applying an additional 3-month automatic extension for RTP Stipend recipients, taking the total scholarship duration to 3 years and 9 months.  The MGA has suggested that this scholarship extension could replace the Graduate Research Completion Award, as the GRCA is awarded competitively and only students in their final year are eligible, when in fact the pandemic is adversely affecting students at all stages of their PhD. 


6. Does the candidature extension to 3.5 years apply to students who started after May?

Students must have commenced their PhD prior to 8 April 2020 to be eligible for the automatic scholarship extension.  Should the lockdowns continue into 2021 the MGA will revisit this determination made by the University.


7. There was a query in this group a few months ago about the possibility of a PhD being granted with a reduced amount of output, given the circumstances. Has there been any progress on this? 

The MGA has not proposed this nor are we aware of any plans by the University to accept a reduced research output for PhDs.


8. What is the University doing to help Masters by Research students?

The University has not announced any special concessions for Masters by Research students.   The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC to propose that the University consider applying an automatic two-month scholarship and candidature extension to bring all Masters scholarships and candidatures to 2 years and 2 months.


9. Is the MGA able to lobby for extensions to people on other (non-RTP/MGS) scholarships, as some students have not been granted any extensions beyond 3 years 3 months?

The MGA has written to all the Faculty Deans requesting that the conditions of all school and faculty-funded scholarships be kept in line with any additional leave, candidature and scholarship extensions being granted to students on RTP scholarships.

The MGA has written to all HDR representatives on faculty-level HDR committees asking that they raise the above request through each of their committees.

Those students on externally-funded scholarships would need to approach their industry partner to make the same request.


10. A candidature extension doesn’t help if you have been affected by COVID and will not be ready for your milestone.  Can the MGA do anything about this?

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC and proposed that a one-month extension to all milestones is automatically granted upon request, without students having to put a case as to how they have been affected by COVID-19.


11. If international students receive a candidature and scholarship extension, do they still have to pay tuition fees?

The MGA has written to all Faculty Deans to request that all tuition fees for international students whose candidatures and/or scholarships are extended be waived.


Graduate Research Completion Award (GRCA)

12. According to the GRCA information webpage, the deadline for the final round of applications is currently listed as 23 October.   Given lockdowns are continuing into September, and many students will likely have had their research disrupted in the final stages of their PhD beyond September, will the university consider extending the GRCA past this date? 

The MGA attended a recent GRC meeting where it was announced that an additional round of GRCA funding for 2020 had been confirmed, and that the GRCA scheme would continue to run until all funds had been exhausted. 

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC to ascertain how many applications have been received and how many have been successful, the duration of the successful awards, as well as how much funding has been allocated to the GRCA scheme overall, and how much of that funding has been distributed.

The MGA has also recommended that the GRCA scheme be replaced with an automatic three-month scholarship extension to bring all candidates to 3 years, 9 months.


Carer responsibilities, sick leave and intermission

13. Are the paid and unpaid sick leave and carer’s leave for scholarship holders at Monash in line with the Commonwealth RTP provisions?

The MGA sought clarification from MGRO on leave entitlements. In summary the leave entitlements for a full-time PhD student are as follows:

PhD Students on an RTP Stipend may be eligible to receive the following:

– 20 working days of paid annual leave, which does not extend candidature period

– 10 working days of paid sick/carer’s leave that can be taken without submitting a form, and does not extend candidature period

– 60 working days of additional paid sick/carer’s leave that can be taken over the duration of the candidature in a minimum block of 10 days and requires a formal application and evidence and can be used for a variety of reasons including sick leave and carers leave. Extends the candidature end date.

– A total of 12 months unpaid leave (less any paid leave already taken from the 60 days) over the duration of the candidature. Requires a formal application and evidence. Extends the candidature end date.

So the total paid leave over a three year candidature is 90 days of sick/carer’s leave and 20 days per year of annual leave.

Students without a scholarship receive the same entitlements but without any of the leave being paid.

All eligible students can apply to have their leave extended under special circumstances.  

MGRO emphasised that it was important to note that not all students (eg masters students or doctoral students with prior candidature) are entitled to the 10 days SL, or any of the maximum leave entitlements, so there may be some individual cases where this leave has not been approved.


14. Are there any restrictions on the 10 paid days per annum of sick/carer’s leave?

These 10 days of paid sick/carer’s leave are negotiated directly between the student and their supervisor, and can be taken as individual days.  No formal application is required.


15. Are part-time students only receiving half the leave entitlements of full-time students?

When it comes to annual leave, part-time students receive pro-rata leave which means they get exactly the same entitlement as full-time students. 

Using annual leave as an example, and a part-time student who is enrolled 0.5, here is the calculation of how annual leave is processed:

  • Full-time student attends university 5 days per week and gets 20 working days of annual leave per year

20/5 = 4 weeks of leave

  • Part-time student attends university 2.5 days per week and gets 10 working days of leave per year

10/2.5 = 4 weeks of leave

The MGA believes that the 60 days of additional paid sick/carer’s leave that applies to full-time students should also be provided to part-time students, because this leave is calculated over the duration of the candidature, not per year as for annual leave.   The University regulations state that part-time students receive only 30 days of additional paid leave.  The MGA has requested an explanation from MGRO on this matter and is waiting on a response.

If part time students have reduced additional sick/carer’s leave entitlements compared to full time students, we will lobby for this to be increased in line with the Commonwealth RTP provisions.


16. Students with children have been unable to work at all while schools are closed and they have to homeschool their children which is extremely time consuming.

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC and proposed the following:

  • that the University provide a blanket approval to extend the maximum candidature leave for all students by 6 months; and
  • that evidence of having pre-school and/or school-aged children be accepted as sufficient evidence for claiming carer’s leave; and
  • that the University extend paid sick/carer’s leave provisions by an additional 30 days for those students on RTP scholarships who have primary carer responsibilities.

17. Leave of absence (intermission) is not allowed in the last 6 months of candidature. However, this would assist students who are in the last 6 months of their degree but are unable to progress due to COVID-19 and the Stage 4 lockdown restrictions.  Can this be relaxed during COVID?

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC and proposed that the University provide a blanket approval to allow students in the first and last 6 months of candidature to intermit.


Cost of working from home, loss of casual work and income

18. What is the university doing to support students who aren’t on scholarships and then lost their income as a result of covid-19? Many students are suffering from financial hardship,  and this situation has been compounded by how little tutoring work is available to HDRs this year.

The MGA understands that this has been a very difficult time financially for some students. The University had several financial hardship grants available for students who were suffering financially, which were available to all students including both international and domestic HDR students.  That fund is now exhausted.  The University continues to provide a more restricted form of financial support through Monash Connect.

Domestic students may also qualify for government support, contact Centrelink for more information.

International students should also seek support from Study Melbourne

We would encourage any student who is struggling to contact our MGA Advocacy service. Email mga-advocacy@monash.edu


Other business

19. Is it possible for HDR students currently on approved study-away to apply for travel exemption to return to Australia?

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC for a response.


20. Conversely, some students would like to return home due to family illness and financial concerns, but Monash has said that Study Away will not be approved effective after 18 March 2020. Are there any provisions to allow these students to return home without affecting their enrolment / visa?

The MGA has written to the Chair of GRC for a response.

The regulations governing study away are available at  https://www.monash.edu/graduate-research/faqs-and-resources/content/chapter-three/3-7. Some students may also be able to apply for external enrolment – https://www.monash.edu/graduate-research/faqs-and-resources/content/chapter-three/3-5.   However due to COVID-19, the university’s decisions regarding allowing students in and out of the country will be governed by government directives.


21. There have been issues communicating with faculty student representatives. Many students were not aware they had faculty representatives, or who they were. They were also unsure how best to contact them.

The way in which student representatives are appointed across the schools and faculties varies: students may be appointed by the MGA ; students may be appointed by the faculty; the MGA may run an election on behalf of the faculty; or the faculty may run its own elections.   Where the faculty chooses not to work with or involve the MGA in their appointment of reps, the MGA reaches out to engage with those student representatives where possible. 

An up-to-date list of faculty student representatives is available on the MGA’s website – https://mga.monash.edu/your-voice/university-committees/. All vacancies are advertised through the MGA newsletter.  The MGA encourages any HDR students with ideas, questions or concerns to email either their faculty student representative or the MGA’s Research Education Officer (Emily Pryor, mga-ec-education-research@monash.edu).  

The MGA runs regular HDR reps meetings throughout the year, and continues to work with faculties and schools to encourage them to connect their reps to the MGA university-wide network.  The MGA has opened up the regular HDR reps meetings to all students, and we would encourage interested students to attend – these are advertised via our newsletter and social media channels. We will add information to the webpages to explain more clearly to students how the rep networks connect with each other.


22. Why did MGA cease advocating for extensions for all HDR students as mentioned on the Facebook page about 10 weeks ago?

Not every request made by every student will be taken up by the MGA.  The MGAEC considered that asking for automatic scholarship extensions to 4.5 years for all HDRs was both unrealistic and inappropriate, given the limited funding available and the severe financial hardships being experienced across the university by other graduate student groups who were without any support.   The MGA is continuing to lobby on a number of fronts.  Since March 2020, the MGA has lobbied on 28 HDR issues, 13 of which were successful, 2 which were unsuccessful and 3 which are pending.  The MGA advocates have seen 72 individual cases for HDR students, 36 of which have been resolved and the remainder are in progress.  


23. In the wake of this latest wave of lockdowns, has this position changed? If so, what is the current campaign objective of the MGA for the extension of deadlines and submissions, and does it reflect the totality of the crisis (March – present day, ongoing) or simply the duration of Lockdown2? 

The MGA plans to use information from this forum, as well as from MGA advocacy work, and in consultation with MGA faculty and school representatives the MGA will determine its future lobbying targets.



24. From where does the MGA receive its funding?

The MGA receives 40% of the SSAF paid by graduate students, which forms the entirety of the MGA budget for each year.  The SSAF is collected by the University and distributed to the various student associations under a negotiated Funding Agreement.


25. Could the MGA look at other lobbying possibilities if their suggested changes are unsuccessful?

In the first instance, the MGA will take the list of concerns, questions and requests arising from this forum to the appropriate university body for comment (Faculty Associate Deans, Monash Graduate Research Office, Graduate Research Committee). The University has not yet had an opportunity to directly comment on many of the issues raised in this forum. The MGA will consider further lobbying action depending on the University’s response. If you have any additional concerns, we encourage you to email Emily Pryor, our Research Education Officer.

Email: mga-ec-education-research@monash.edu