Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

By Inger Mewburn

Apparently international PhD students in Australia now have to seek ministerial approval to change their thesis topic or face deportation.  

Yes. You read that right. 

According to guidelines published on the Australian Government immigration and citizenship website (Karen Andrews, pictured in the header, is the Minister for Home Affairs), International PhD students who want to change their “thesis or research topic” now have to wait for an Australian politician to sign off the change or risk have their visa cancelled. As Julie Hare reports in the Australian Financial Review, the government is worried that “… there might be an ‘unreasonable risk of unwanted transfer of critical technology, or theft of intellectual property”. And apparently the minister will make a decision after they have ‘obtained an assessment from the competent Australian authorities.’ 

The deep, and – I’m just going to say it – totally bone headed stupidity of this idea is maybe not apparent to anyone who has not done a PhD. The whole first year of the PhD is meant to involve refining a topic. Many PhD students change their topic dramatically in the first year. Or they change it later on, due to unforeseen circumstances. Imagine the next Alexander Fleming having to wait for the minister to approve their investigation of this century’s equivalent of mouldy petri dish? Given how long it takes ministers to make decisions, I don’t have much hope Australia will produce the next penicillin. 

It’s not just medical geniuses who take their time. My own PhD application to Melbourne university in 2005 suggested I was going to study ‘genetic algorithms which can find architectural form’. Don’t even ask – the idea was deeply fashionable at the time. In the six months between my application being accepted and starting my research, I changed my mind about twenty times. My first research plan, written about 3 months in, suggested I was going to study the ‘linguistics of architecture’. This idea – to be clear – was Not Good. But my supervisor had to listen to me gibber on about it for a couple of weeks. Bless his heart, he never let me commit to such a crappy idea and coaxed me into exploring hand gestures. 

It was at least nine months into my PhD before I worked out why a study of architects’ gesturing was worth doing. I won’t bore for Australia as to why it was useful. The point of this story is that making knowledge is a deeply uncertain business. You need time to read, think and talk to people. That’s exactly why we don’t ask people to apply for a PhD with a ready to go project plan that can just be rolled out – as this visa legislation seems to assume. I’m deeply grateful for the time I was given to explore the possibilities and change my mind. The idea of getting ministerial approval every time an international PhD student changes their mind about your PhD thesis topic is not only stupid, and completely unenforceable. Worse, it’s all part of an insidious government over-reach into the business of being an academic in this country. Over-reach with creepy racist overtones to boot.  

This government seems perpetually anxious about international students and about academics more generally. PhD students from some countries have restrictions over what they can study, for instance, students from Iran are forbidden to study nuclear technology. Students on a visa don’t have the right to ‘be disruptive’, which handily limits their ability to protest. In case you missed it (I mean, it’s been a busy couple of years), all of us academics are now framed as being potentially dangerous traitors. In 2021, the Australian government published the Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector (the Guidelines) in which they state that universities will require: “declaration of interest disclosures from staff who are at risk of foreign interference, including identification of foreign affiliations, relationships and financial interests.” I’ve asked my university, what does a ‘foreign relationship’ mean? Does an ongoing research conversation over email and writing papers with colleagues in other country trigger the need for a declaration? No one can tell me for sure because the guidelines are so vague and all encompassing. 

Where exactly is the line between reasonable caution and paranoia these days? It’s so hard to tell.  

Besides being impossible to enforce, this latest government brain fart seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Are there actual situations which have led to a clear need for this visa change, or is this the result of fevered imagining by intelligence agency personnel who don’t get out enough? I mean,  if these intelligence officials had taken the time to call any working academic in Australia I wouldn’t have to waste my Sunday afternoon writing this article. But I suspect it’s not the intelligence officials behind this change. We have a conservative government eager to punch on academics any chance they get, as we saw during the pandemic. It’s hard to avoid this feeling that this particular government just hates academics, which is a sad turn for our country. 

I don’t want to say Australia is turning into a fascist state, but perhaps our politicians are just a little too fascist curious? Just like our foreign interference guidelines, this new international student visa requirement is both vague and all encompassing. It seems designed to produce a chilling effect. To be honest with you, as I write this article I am starting to wonder – should I speak out so forcefully? Will I become a target? Is a file on me open inside the Australian government somewhere labelled: ‘middle aged female academic: angry’?

On the other hand, maybe the government is on to something. The minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, could save a lot of us supervisors a lot of time by being the sounding board for these agonising PhD topic conversations. My imaginary conversation with Karen Andrews about my thesis topic changes goes something like this: 

“So Karen, hey girl!, I’ve been thinking about my PhD topic and maybe genetic algorithms… are they too 2005? you know? I’m wondering if this thesis will date me, but not in a good way. I’ve been thinking I need a topic that is, I dunno, more – timeless? So I’m thinking about linguistics… 

Karen? … Are you there Karen? I hope I’m not boring you…”

Professor Inger Mewburn is the director of the Researcher Development Office of the Dean of Higher Degree by Research at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her blog The Thesis Whisperer is a must read. You can find her at @thesiswhisperer.

Image of Karen Andrews in header by Mick Tsikas

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