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Rethinking supervisions for the 21st century

Disruptive shifts emanating from globalisation and emergent technologies are forcing a rethink of traditional approaches to teaching and learning and, importantly, PhD supervision in Australia.

A perceived lack of 21st century skills has resulted in reluctance by industry and government to employ PhD graduates. These forces are also flaming a debate in Australia between industry, business and the higher education sector about the work-readiness of graduates. A reconceptualisation of supervision pedagogy is therefore considered critical by those in government and industry.

Generally, the work-readiness debate has focused on undergraduate education; however, it is now broadening to encompass Higher Degree by Research, or HDR, training. In a speech at the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, or AMSI, Accelerate Australia Conference in 2013 Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb argued that, for Australia, its universities and industry the work-readiness of HDR graduates is a ‘critically important’ concern.

According to Chubb, through the HDR process graduates develop ‘analytical, creative, independent and driven personalities’. However, he lamented, industries in Australia do not want to employ them. The ‘old-style apprenticeship model’ of PhD supervision is no longer fit for purpose.

Chubb said time needed to be given to develop additional skills to ‘help prepare graduates for multiple opportunities’. To address this, Chubb proposed HDR training be restructured to include a wider set of skills.

Why this matters

In Australia, as in other knowledge economies, HDR graduates are now just as likely to take up positions in government, industry and non-government organisations as they are to take up posts in universities. A recent survey suggests around 25% of Australian HDR graduates find work in universities.

Globalisation is changing the face of employment. Industry and business require more graduates with 21st century skills such as sense-making, computational thinking, cognitive load management and social and cross-cultural intelligence and competency.

The authors of the Australian Group of Eight universities discussion paper, The Changing PhD (2013), observe that other desirable skills include: the ability to formulate and solve interdisciplinary problems; sophisticated approaches to research management and understanding of research impact; and the ability to communicate and collaborate within the ‘Triple Helix’ of university, industry and government in activities that traverse national borders – all essential in a globalised market place and super complex world.

The same skills are likewise required in the higher education sector with universities subject to the same forces as industry. As universities internationalise, ‘traditional academics’ encounter increased mobility and cultural and linguistic diversity for which they are largely unprepared. How this is addressed merits consideration.

In their 2009 paper, Graduate Attribute Development and Employment Outcomes: Tracking PhD graduates, Catherine Manathunga and colleagues reported that many PhD graduates felt their training had not adequately prepared them for postdoctoral employment. One area of dissatisfaction centred on global and intercultural skills. Global connections require a global mindset and intercultural skills; neither is specifically developed in HDR training.

The 2011 Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research report, Research Skills for an Innovative Future, emphasises the importance of these skills in Australia where “the ‘tyranny of distance’ is an ever present reality… as international experience and connections are highly instrumental in developing and preserving professional networks and enhancing the impact of research”.

Addressing the global or intercultural dimensions of HRD training matters because, irrespective of career trajectory, HDR graduates need to engage in ‘border-spanning’ collaborations with a diverse range of actors across the globe. In other words, they must be able to ethically engage with, and in, an increasingly interconnected world, without borders encumbering them.

Reconceptualising the supervision

Within the Australian context, where HDR students do not generally undertake coursework, supervisors are particularly well-placed to influence and shape the skills and dispositions of their students.

Manathunga and her colleagues have questioned the efficacy of centrally-administered programmes that exist outside of the supervision process which do not relate to the students’ research interests and do not recognise and capitalise on the candidate’s pre-existing abilities.

They concluded that any central, generic programmes must be supplemented with ‘a more tailored process’ – one that is most effectively developed within the supervisor-student relationship, where opportunities for highly effective, just-in-time, experiential, reflective learning abound.

In our work with internationalisation of the curriculum, or IoC, we have come to understand the importance of engagement in approaches to academic professional practice. Internationalising the curriculum is a transformative process – for academics, as well as students – because it calls for a critique of a discipline or field’s paradigmatic hegemon, traditional practices, one’s personal or cultural values, behaviours and agency.

This is equally true of HDR supervision practices, which Fazal Rizvi in the Routledge Doctoral Supervisor’s Companion observes, often fail to harness the potential of mutual learning between students and supervisors from differing cultural backgrounds.

Lessons learned from internationalising the curriculum

It is critically important to intellectually engage supervisors in the processes of reflecting on and changing aspects of their supervision pedagogy.

Supervisors – like most academics – are somewhat resistant to changing pedagogical practices such as supervision because of perceived threats to academic values, ways of working, academic freedom, the primacy of disciplinary knowledge and loss of control over one’s academic practice.

How they enact their role in the training and development of students and construct their pedagogy is further influenced by the centrality of the discipline in shaping the dispositions of both supervisors and candidates and the possibilities and limitations for training offered in differing institutional contexts, as Manathunga and her colleagues noted in their 2009 paper.

In Jillian Hamilton and colleagues’ Good Practice Report: Postgraduate research and coursework degrees, funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching, the need for professional development for supervisors, underpinned by pedagogical principles, rather than compliance was reported as critical.

The report suggests using contextually targeted exemplars of good practice as well as discipline-level and informal mechanisms for “capacity building at local levels through distributed leadership models that enable dialogue, communities of practice and peer mentoring”.

This mirrors the approach to professional development advanced by Professor Betty Leask in her Australian Learning and Teaching Council Fellowship, Internationalisation of the Curriculum (IoC) in Action, wherein academics are placed at the centre of a context-sensitive, evidence-based, cyclical, participatory, reflective, ongoing process of continuing professional learning.

To successfully engage academics in challenging propositions such as reconceptualising the pedagogy of supervision, it is vital they are provided with safe, structured spaces for guided reflection on and review of current practices; good facilitation, rather than direction; resources that prompt critical debate; a situated approach to develop communities of practice, together with opportunities to engage in critical inter-disciplinary spaces; active involvement of discipline leaders; and meaningful goals for participating academics.

In this way, they may move closer to addressing the concerns of Chubb and those in government and industry by producing HDR graduates with the broader skills necessary for engagement in and with the world of today and tomorrow.

Craig Whitsed is a senior lecturer at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Wendy Green is a senior lecturer in learning and teaching at the University of Tasmania.

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