Thoughts on the Registration of Doctoral Supervisors in Australian Universities

Amidst calls to improve the quality of doctoral supervision, some years ago the Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies Australia determined that the registration of supervisors would be a mechanism for guaranteeing the quality of Higher Degree Research (HDR) supervision in Australian Universities. The commitment to registration as well as ‘deregistration’ was enshrined in the August 2017 Department of Education and Training’s Research Training Implementation Plan.

What does registration mean ‘on the ground’’?

Usually registration is comprised of two parts. 1. University policy outlines the criteria a potential supervisor must meet. 2. Those who are successfully registered are required to complete some form of mandatory training to remain registered.

Snapshot Critique

To my knowledge there exists no published research that explores, interrogates or supports the thesis that the registration of doctoral supervisors assures or is related to the quality of doctoral supervision.

The criteria for the registration of potential supervisors favours tenured academics. This in turn allows tenured academics to accumulate candidates like gold in a vault, and relegates talented potential supervisors who are not tenured to invisible supervisory roles without allocated workload. This is an endemic problem.

There is no evidence that registered supervisors actually do mandated annual training. At Macquarie University I reviewed compliance in 2016. Although I am not at liberty to discuss in-house findings, what I can say is that such a sector-wide study is warranted if the rules are to remain (which I don’t advocate).

There is no evidence anywhere, in any industry, that one training event per year is a quality mechanism for guaranteeing the quality of anything, let alone the complexity of doctoral supervision.

It has not been uncommon in my experience for newly arrived Professors to ask exemption from requirements to complete orientation to doctoral supervision. An assumption exists, because they have gold in the vault, that they should not be required to do any further development, including training. The terms ‘maintain currency’, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), work-integrated learning (WIL) or reflective practice are not much used in this corner of the academic world. This does not mean they are not willing to share their expertise, or evidence their practices, just that training is the wrong solution.

There is a false assumption that if you have gold in the vault you have proven you are a good supervisor. This false assumption is routinely reinforced through grant applications, impact statements and promotions. Aka ‘if you have gold in the vault you must be good’.

Professional academic developers such as myself know that one-per-year, mandatory, off-the-job training does not work. Hundreds of studies about Faculty development tell us this. The mandatory requirement has been developed on the back of a disproven model of academic development.

‘Deregistration’ in my experience is utterly rare. There are no studies that illuminate it, and no practice sharing throughout the sector to figure out how it should be done. Logically for privacy reasons and fair process, it is most unlikely for a link to exist between the keepers of registration, and HR procedures.

The sector is silent on the use of analytics. The 2016 ACOLA review into research training did not mention ‘digital’ in any of its questions, findings or recommendations. Yet carefully designed digital candidature management planning would enable early identification of problems.

The Universities Australia/Human Rights Commission Report Change The Course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities (2017) provided yet more need to establish deregistration practices, yet there remains no guidance about how.

Possibilities

Some aspects of the problems of doctoral supervision cannot be solved through ‘training’ or CPD, no matter how well designed. It is important to understand that improving the quality of doctoral supervision is a whole-of-institution challenge. If a University protects a predatory doctoral supervisor through poor institutional governance and cultural practices, no amount of CPD will fix the situation.

What can be fixed is the approach taken by a University to maximise the impact of the limited resources that have been allocated to foster good practice. In my case at Macquarie University the resources were n=1 Associate Professor (my former role).

There is a wealth of literature that tells us what good practice is in doctoral supervision, and numerous models that might help foster it. My take, based on years of experience, was that the rules of engagement constrained the implementation of good practice. My inner voice said: you can’t improve practice if the system itself is dysfunctional, compliance-based-yet-not-complied-with-and-resented, elitist and exclusive; where those who do a great deal of the work of supervision can’t be registered because of increasing job insecurity; and where mandated training is really mostly done by less-experienced academics hoping to gain access to the gold.

What else is possible?

In essence, we:

  1. Introduced the notion of evidence-based practice in HDR Supervision that is typically applied to learning and teaching at UG level
  2. Influence the revision of the MQ Promotions Policy to ensure that ‘completions’ were not the only way of demonstrating good practice
  3. Revised the HDR Policy and Procedure to remove traditional barriers (such as ‘must be on a minimum 3 year contract’) that favoured tenured academics whilst ensuring it met national benchmarks re ‘continuity of supervision’
  4. Revised the HDR Policy and Procedure to introduce changed Supervisor categories to enable non-tenured academics to access supervisory experiences or lead supervision
  5. Crafted an HDR Supervision Framework as a way of articulating the dimensions and components of good practice at MQ (There are other such frameworks, and research supporting such an approach)
  6. Crafted an HDR Supervision Fellowship Program. Limited resources mean that we have adopted an initial focus on enabling early career academics, and early career professional staff tasked with an HDR focus
  7. Influenced the institution-wide roll-out of PURE (Research Hub) so that it became a replacement for ‘registration’. Currently in Pilot, this replacement means that every time a potential supervisor is suggested, they must demonstrate they meet the criteria for appointment. (‘I am an experienced Professor, and I am registered’ does not cut it anymore).

The approach as outlined will not be new to readers who were involved in Australian Learning and Teaching Citations (as I was at the University of Wollongong), Advanced Higher Education Fellowships (formally HEA), or Faculty Fellowship Schemes (as I was at Charles Sturt University).

The transformation of the curriculum model took 3 years. Now lead by my colleague A/P Bill Ashraf, as of May 2018 we have the ‘conditions of success’ in place to begin to pursue a CPD model that is salutogenic, inclusive, evidence-based, situated, authentic and connected.

Macquarie University can still confirm that it ‘registers’ supervisors, that we meet national benchmarks, and that annual training is offered. We hope that our creative interpretation of the rules of engagement enables a new whole-of-institution conversation about what constitutes evidence of good doctoral supervision practices across the doctoral journey as expressed by academic, professional and third sector professionals. It takes a village. It also takes ongoing formal evaluation over the coming years of implementation. As always this evaluation will invoke the wicked problems that characterise all programs that aim to change academic practices. It will be a challenging journey.

We are happy to share.

Update

September 2018.