Going Down Under: A OnceinaLifetime Experience?


Australia is one of the most popular countries for “veetelers” (livestock growers)–as animal science MSc students at Wageningen University have come to be known–to do their placement. The true “veeteler city” is Palmerston North in New Zealand, but Brisbane, Adelaide, and Melbourne are also among the frequently visited places for a 6-month Australian experience. What is so appealing about the country? How do students find a placement location? And why don’t they return after graduation? I talked with two of Wageningen’s students–as well as a professor–who are familiar with placements in Australia to find out why it is a perfect “placement country,” but doesn’t attract a lot of Dutch PhD candidates.

The Expert

If a student in the department of animal sciences is looking for a placement location in Australia, she or he is generally advised to talk with Professor and Engineer . Bas Kemp–head of the Adaptation Physiology Group. Each year, four or five of his students go to Australia. They choose from his list of contacts, which is “meters of length,” as he puts it. Since his graduation in 1986, he’s collaborated closely with Australian colleagues, who are traditionally leaders in pig fertility research–Kemp’s field of expertise. There are still quite a few “big names” he can send his students to, although Kemp recognises that Australian pig research has lost its leading position in recent years.

Cloning King and Welfare Research

Kees Heemskerk and Mariska van ‘t Veer both worked in Werribee–near Melbourne–under two of Kemp’s “hot shots.” The former was under the supervision of. Richard Fry, founder and director of the Animal Reproduction Company. and chief executive officer of Clone International. According to Heemskerk, this “cloning king” and “master of ovum pickup” is famous all over Australia. Fry is also affiliated with the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne, so Heemskerk worked both in the veterinary clinic and in “the field.”

Van ‘t Veer worked at the Victoria Institute of Animal Science under the supervision of Paul Hamsworth, a famous animal welfare researcher. For about 7 months she took care of about 2000 pigs and analysed their behaviour. “He left me completely free with the ideas I had,” she says about him, whom she recalls as inspiring and motivating.

Dream Country

Heemskerk and van ‘t Veer fully immersed themselves in Australian society. Not knowing anyone, they both struggled to adapt the first few weeks they were there. “To understand their accent was an enormous job,” says van ‘t Veer. Heemskerk also remembers the energy it cost him to focus on language so much, and at some point he even wondered why he had gone to Australia. “You come out of everything, and go to nothing,” Heemskerk says, his way of explaining how he left everything familiar to him–family, friends, home, and even the Dutch language–behind. Still he didn’t give up and made many new friends, once he found the key to understanding “Aussie English.”

Australian Hospitality

Kemp, Heemskerk, and van ‘t Veer all agree on one point: The hospitality and openness of the Australian people is astonishing. “They’re always sociable,” says van ‘t Veer. She remembered Australian hospitality, but she thought it was superficial. She was shocked by the distance with which locals treated her and each other. “Women, even good friends, don’t shake hands or kiss each other,” she tells, “and gossiping is wicked.” Heemskerk, however, remembers how his supervisor took care of him and his sister when they had nowhere else to go. “I had given up my apartment to go on a tour around South Australia with my sister,” he reminisces, “but her luggage came in 2 days late.” His supervisor immediately invited Heemskerk and his sister–a stranger–to his place.

PhD in Australia

Most students speak well of Australia after their return home. Yet Kemp doesn’t know of any Dutch graduates going back to do a PhD there. Van ‘t Veer thinks she knows why. “My supervisor told me that foreign MSc graduates would have to come up with some AU$40,000 (?23,439) to start with,” she says, “and we don’t even get a salary.” Worse, it turns out, this is not the only possible obstacle on the way to an Australian PhD.

So, I did some research. The course database of the University of Melbourne, for example, confirms that postgraduate education–including PhD courses–must be paid for by the student, not the state. The annual fees for PhD courses differ according to the specific field of research, but most lie around AU$26,000 (?15,247). In 2001, the Australian government instituted the Research Training Scheme, which allows students to follow postgraduate education without paying any fee. Unfortunately, this funding scheme applies only to Australian or New Zealand citizens and Australian residents. Foreign students can apply for other funding opportunities, of which an overview has been published earlier in Next Wave.

Van ‘t Veer mentioned AU$40,000, which is far more than just the course fee. She’s right, there is more. PhD candidates in Australia are considered students, who are not on the university’s payroll. Still it was estimated that a year’s living expenses in Melbourne costs around AU$13,000 (?7616) at a minimum. So to keep yourself up and running, you have two options. The first is to find another scholarship to cover your living expenses. However many PhD students work part time (8 to 10 hours a week) along with doing their studies. While Australians have the possibility of doing their PhD part time, this is hard for foreign students to do because of visa restrictions (part-time studies take twice as long). The second way, and the only way to circumvent all difficulties, is by becoming an “Aussie” through the General Skilled Migration programme.

Mainly because of the costs, van ‘t Veer has put the dream of doing her PhD in Australia aside for a while. However, costs aren’t the only barriers to earning a PhD in Australia by someone from the Netherlands. If van ‘t Veer looked further, she would come across two more obstacles: language and qualifications. The University of Melbourne gives a number of ways to meet English language requirements. However, most nonnative-English speakers probably have to pass one of two tests: the International English Language Testing System ( IELTS) or the Test of English as a Foreign Language ( TOEFL).

By the time you’ve got your funding sorted, prepared your visa request, and passed your English test, your acceptance is still not guaranteed. Your application (for which a fee of AU$50 or AU$100 is required) is reviewed and ranked according to three criteria. Needless to say, only the best applicants get the opportunity to proceed.


The high costs and extensive procedures probably hold back many graduates from doing their PhD in Australia. Heemskerk has never thought about leaving the Netherlands. “I am comfortable here,” he says. Kemp feels the same way, but if he would emigrate, Australia would definitely be his first choice. “To me that’s the most appealing country,” he concludes, “because of its culture and the people I know.” So far, Kemp has left the longer visits down under to his students.

Terry Vrijenhoek is the editor for Next Wave Netherlands and may be reached at .

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