QUEX is the University of Queensland and University of Exeter Institute for Global Sustainability and Wellbeing. It is a partnership between the two universities with three themes – Healthy Ageing, Environmental Sustainability, and Physical Activity and Nutrition – that has joint PhD studentships as a central element. Each year ten studentships are available and these will lead to jointly awarded PhDs from the two universities; other funding streams are available to research, teaching, and professional services staff in the two universities to develop and support joint projects and visits.
The first cohort of students started in January 2018 and the first symposium was held last week in Exeter. I attended in my role as Exeter theme lead for the Health Ageing Theme.
At the symposium I was struck by three things I thought were three great about QUEX:
First, the students: they are all very impressive. QUEX students spend two years at one of the universities and one year at the other, usually sandwiched in the middle. The students are getting a very international experience and are themselves from all over the world: we have (from memory) three people from Britain, one from Australia, one from Fiji, two from Portugal, one from the US, one from New Zealand, and one from Japan. There were over 700 applications for the studentships so everyone who is in this cohort has had to really stand out and I thought they did: each of them is a great ambassador for QUEX and I was impressed by how good they are.
Second, the opportunities created. One motivation for the formation of QUEX was the observation that papers on which researchers from both Exeter and Queensland were both authors were cited more than papers in which only one university was involved. I would see this as in part coming from the fact that dual-institution papers are able to tap into more than one national network of citing (an example of the strength of weak ties, in social network terms). The advantage to students and to research teams is the same: they are able to tap into networks of scientists and knowledge that are likely relatively unconnected and so they will automatically extend the reach and influence of their work simply by virtue of being part of QUEX.
Third, this kind of international PhD arrangement seems like one version of the future of postgraduate study. I’m going to avoid using the phrase “in our increasingly globalized world” but it is the case that people who can work comfortably and well in different settings have more avenues open to them and, as researchers, more opportunities to join excellent research groups and to address problems that are global in nature: problems like this associated with the QUEX research themes. Going beyond shared supervision or short-term visits, arrangements like QUEX permit people to gain extended experience in more than one research (and cultural) setting. The presence of, and talks given by, the VCs of both universities at this symposium indicates that university leaders also see the importance of such undertakings.
I was also struck by three challenges that programmes like QUEX face:
The first is around communication. With students and supervisors spread across multiple campuses in universities thousands of miles apart, excellent internal and external communication are essential to creating and maintaining an esprit de corps as well as simply to ensuring the smooth running of the programme and ensuring everyone is up to date with progress and opportunities. Some dedicated comms resource is important to making this happen.
The second challenge is around sustaining things: this applies to QUEX itself, which is currently dependent on funding from both universities, and also to the careers of the researchers involved. One difficulty is that a lot of funding can’t be used to pay for people from other countries; for example, most research council (government) funding in the UK can’t be used to pay for the time of researchers based in Australia. Doing this kind of cross-national research runs the risk of being a bit like doing interdisciplinary research: everybody talks it up and it’s clearly worthwhile but funders and journals and assessment panels are all set up around single disciplines and you risk falling between stools. Part of the ongoing behind-the-scenes work in QUEX is going to involve identifying fellowships and funding schemes that support international collaboration.
Finally, there is a challenge around environmental sustainability. Flying researchers and other university staff around the world is important and exciting but, as far as I know, flying is one of the worst things you can do for the environment. I think we all have to work out how we can do this kind of work without screwing the planet up. In a programme that has environmental sustainability as one of its themes we would be troubling if we were not to address this.
As a programme, QUEX is going to go from strength to strength. At the time of writing, the second cohort of studentships is being advertised (see https://scholarships.uq.edu.au/scholarship/quex-phd-scholarships). You can read more about QUEX here: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/quex/.