Formalising supervision – A step towards better quality?

Christina Schäffner

Aston University, Birmingham

(Report from the Lisbon Congress round table on supervision, September 2004. Convenor: Andrew Chesterman)

 

 

The quality of postgraduate research in Translation Studies is of major concern to all higher education institutions, and also to EST. At the EST Congress 1998, we had a panel on thesis supervision, at which results of a questionnaire on PhD and Master's supervision in translation studies were presented. The results then were mainly of a quantitative nature, reflecting differences in the structure, expectations, and procedures of postgraduate research.

 

With regard to the quality of programme provision, universities in England undergo institutional audits and subject reviews at regular intervals. For conducting these reviews, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has produced a variety of guidelines, benchmark statements, and codes of practice. One such Code, which came into force in September 2004, is the Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education (see http://www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/codeOfPractice/section1/default.asp).

 

This Code was produced by a working group including representatives from Higher Education institutions, research councils, funding councils and other organisations, and the final version is the result of a lengthy consultation process. This code sets out what a PhD student can expect from a university and vice versa. Although the Code is presented as “a statement of good practice”, universities must comply with it in order to secure funding from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE). The code will also be the basis for future audit and review processes. As stated in the forward: “[The Code] provides an authoritative reference point for institutions as they consciously, actively and systematically assure the academic quality and standards of their programmes, awards and qualifications.” Universities are required to have policies and procedures in place that are robust and effective in securing and enhancing the quality and standards of the provision of research degree programmes.

 

The matters relating to the management of academic quality and standards in higher education which are covered by the Code are presented in the form of system-wide principles (precepts). These precepts express “key matters of principle that the higher education community has identified as important for the assurance of quality and academic standards.”

 

Since the Code is to give Higher Education Institutions guidance on fundings councils’, research councils’ and QAA expectations in respect of quality and standards of research programmes, the precepts are accompanied by explanations. There are 27 precepts in total, covering the following issues:

 

·        Institutional arrangements

·        The research environment

·        Selection, admission and induction of students

·        Supervision

·        Progress and review arrangements

·        Development of research and other skills

·        Feedback mechanisms

·        Assessment

·        Student representations

·        Complaints

·        Appeals

 

In the following part, I will only focus on the Supervision section. The complete list of precepts is given in Appendix 1, followed by a Joint statement by the research councils/AHRB on Skills training requirements for research students (Appendix 2). It is expected that doctoral research students develop these skills during their research training, and institutions are to ensure that this is the case. It is interesting to see that in addition to research skills and techniques, this list of skills also includes communication skills, networking and teamworking skills, and career management skills. With their PhD thesis, research students are expected to make a substantial, original contribution to the knowledge in their area, but at the same time, they are expected to prepare for a professional career in the academic environment. I mention these skills here because they explain the national and institutional context in which the Code and the precepts have to be understood. That is, although the Code says that the precepts “are intended to cover the many different types of students undertaking research programmes in the UK, including full and part-time, students of all ages and with different needs, UK and international, and from all backgrounds”, both the list of skills and the comments in the Code seem to reflect that the typical research student is a young person at the beginning of their career, coming to PhD research after having completed a Master’s programme. This can also be seen in the Code’s section on Development of research and other skills (precept 18), which speaks of skills students require “to become effective researchers, to enhance their employability and assist their career progress after completion of their degree.”

 

All precepts in the Code are interrelated, and although they apply to the UK context, some of the requirements are of general relevance in respect of quality of research and quality of supervision. For example, research students should work in an academic envrionment in which high quality research is being done and which provides sufficient support for research; institutions will only admit appropriately qualified and prepared students to research programmes; responsibilities of research students and supervisors are defined and communicated clearly. The Code thus clearly argues for formalised and regulated arrangements which allow for monitoring and control. Supervision is seen as an institutional matter. In other words, the traditional practice of a more personal arrangement between supervisor and supervisee is no longer seen as being conducive to high quality research.

 

The aspect of Supervision is covered in precepts 11 till 14. These precepts deal with the institutional responsibility to provide regular and appropriate supervisory support, opportunities for interacting with other researchers, advice from independent sources, and arrangements that protect the student in the event of the loss of a supervisor. I will present the precepts, give extracts of the accompanying explanations, and add my own comments.

 

Precept 11: Institutions will appoint supervisors who have the appropriate skills and subject knowledge to support, encourage and monitor research students effectively.

 

All supervisors need appropriate expertise for their role. They will wish, and institutions will require them, to engage in development of various kinds to equip them to supervise students.

 

New supervisors will participate in specified development activities, arranged through their institutions, to assure their competence in the role.

 

Institutions will expect existing supervisors to demonstrate their continuing professional development through participation in a range of activities designed to support their work as supervisors. Supervisors should take the initiative in updating their knowledge and skills, supported by institutional arrangements that define and enable sharing of good practice and provide advice on effective support for different types of student. Mentoring relationships are one example of how support can be provided for supervisors.

[…]

 

Comment: The qualifications of supervisors are a crucial aspect. In the UK, academics who have a PhD can be supervisors of research students. This means that somebody who has just completed a PhD themselves may be appointed as supervisor shortly afterwards. That is, appointment as a supervisor is independent of the academic position and of experience. It is also possible to be appointed as a supervisor without a PhD if the person concerned has relevant experience in the discipline and/or has published widely. In other countries, only professors are appointed as supervisors, or an academic needs to have a higher doctorate (e.g. a Habilitation in Germany) in order to act as a supervisor. These specific conditions of supervisor appointment in the UK explains the requirement for training expressed in precept 11.

 

But when does a supervisor have ‘appropriate expertise’? The supervisory role includes expertise in the subject domain and also interpersonal skills. Anybody who has completed a PhD themselves should have proved their expertise in a relevant topic and subject, which will enable them to give guidance to the supervisee. The interpersonal level is crucial for the success of supervision. Supervising a young full-time research student who is a novice to research requires different skills from supervising a colleague who is working part-time for a PhD and who may already have published and/or given papers at conferences. Age and gender may be important factors in the relationship as well. The country of origin of the research student is also crucial, since expectations about the role of the supervisor are different (e.g., supervisor as a fountain of knowledge, as a facilitator, as a friend). Institutional training for supervisors can be helpful in this respect if it is organised as exchange of experience and raising awareness of potential problems. Developing expertise in supervising is a gradual process, and training as such can be useful in speeding up this process. However, there is also the danger that institutions may overact in their quest to comply with the Code (structured programmes that lead to a postgraduate certificate in supervision, awarded after completion of sessions and examinations have already been developed in some institutions).

 

 

Precept 12: Each research student will have a minimum of one main supervisor. He or she will normally be part of a supervisory team. There must always be one clearly identified point of contact for the student.

 

[…] Involvement with a supervisory team can provide valuable staff development and grounding in the skills required to become an effective research supervisor. A supervisory team can give the student access to a multi-faceted support network, which may include: other research staff and students in the subject; a departmental adviser to postgraduate students; a faculty postgraduate tutor; or other individuals in similar roles.

 

Between them, the main supervisor and, where relevant, other members of the supervisory team, will ensure that research students receive sufficient support and guidance to facilitate their success.

 

At least one member of the supervisory team will be currently engaged in research in the relevant discipline(s), so as to ensure that the direction and monitoring of the student's progress is informed by up-to-date subject knowledge and research developments.

 

[…] In all cases, a student should have an identified single point of contact, normally the main supervisor. […]

 

As and when a main supervisor is not able to continue supervising the student, an appropriate supervisor will be appointed to assume the role.

 

[…] It is important that, if a student/supervisor relationship is not working well, alternative independent sources of advice are available to the student. […]

 

Students will have sufficient opportunities for contacting and receiving advice and guidance from their supervisor(s) throughout their programme, irrespective of their geographical location. […]

 

Comment: These explanations again highlight the fact that supervision is perceived as an institutional responsibility.  On the one hand, this can be interpreted in a positive way: research students are integrated into the research environment and they are encouraged to see themselves as members of a research community, and not just as ‘a student of Professor X’. On the other hand, having a supervisory team is also a kind of insurance policy for universities against potential failure, complaints and appeals.  In the UK, research students have to pay a fee, unless they receive a scholarship or a bursary and/or the fee is paid by sponsors, employers, or research councils (universities also receive some money from the funding councils, depending on the number of research students, and only for a specified time; recently, plans have been announced to fund only research students at universities that got the highest scores of 4 or 5 in the Research Assessment Exercise). This means, if students fail to to complete their PhD after having spent a lot of money, the chances that they may complain about inadequate supervision are higher. Also in order to safeguard against lengthy processes  of complaints and appeals, universities are expected to have procedures in place with which to monitor progress (e.g., annual reports on each student’s progress, to be completed jointly by the supervisor and the supervisee;  questionnaires  on supervision arrangements to be completed anonymously by the student once a year; annual monitoring reports on research degree programmes are submitted to the university’s Quality and Standards Committee, including information on student numbers, completion rates, withdrawals). The focus on supervisory teams is another one of these measures to monitor quality of provision (NB: the label ‘provision’ itself is evidence of the marketing discourse of higher education, where the institutions are seen as programme providers, and the students as customers who want to buy quality products, and if they don’t get quality, they complain to the manager). It is thus also in the institution’s interest to do everything to help research students complete their PhD in time and to a high level of  quality, and this explains the responsibility for a student in any case (e.g. finding another supervisor if the original supervisor leaves the university). This again shows that for research students too, the institutional affiliation should at least be equally important than ‘attachment’ to a particular supervisor.

 

Precept 13: Institutions will ensure that the responsibilities of all research student supervisors are clearly communicated to supervisors and students through written guidance.

 

It is important that supervisor(s) and student are fully aware of the extent of one another's responsibilities, to enable both to understand the supervisor's contribution to supporting the student and where the supervisor's responsibilities end.

 

Depending on institutional and research council guidance, supervisory responsibilities may include:

  providing satisfactory guidance and advice;

  being responsible for monitoring the progress of the student's research programme;

  establishing and maintaining regular contact with the student (where appropriate, guided by institutional expectations), and ensuring his/her accessibility to the student when s/he needs advice, by whatever means is most suitable given the student's location and mode of study;

  having input into the assessment of a student's development needs;

  providing timely, constructive and effective feedback on the student's work, including his/her overall progress within the programme;

  ensuring that the student is aware of the need to exercise probity and conduct his/her research according to ethical principles, and of the implications of research misconduct;

  ensuring that the student is aware of institutional-level sources of advice, including careers guidance, health and safety legislation and equal opportunities policy;

  providing effective pastoral support and/or referring the student to other sources of such support, including student advisers (or equivalent), graduate school staff and others within the student's academic community;

  helping the student to interact with others working in the field of research, for example, encouraging the student to attend relevant conferences, supporting him/her in seeking funding for such events; and where appropriate to submit conference papers and articles to refereed journals;

  maintaining the necessary supervisory expertise, including the appropriate skills, to perform all of the roles satisfactorily, supported by relevant continuing professional development opportunities.

 

Supervisors will be sensitive to the diverse needs of individual students, including international students, and the associated support that may be required in different circumstances. […]

 

Institutions may find it helpful to include in their code(s) of practice […], guidance on the minimum frequency of contact advisable between students and supervisors. […]

 

Comment: This list of responsibilities reflects the different roles of the supervisor (subject expert, advisor, mentor, assessor, ‘agony aunt’, …). It also highlights the supervisor’s responsibility both towards the research student (in the narrow sense of producing a PhD and in the wider sense of becoming a member of the research community) and towards the institution (reporting on progress, informing of problems). It could be argued that the whole list of tasks referring to the responsibility towards the research student is common sense. Each academic should be interested in enhancing knowledge in their respective discipline, and subsequently, each supervisor should be interested in seeing new scholars emerge and helping them getting established – and a successful PhD thesis of high quality is a major step in this process. In the environment of UK universities, as explained above, this list of responsibilities can also serve as performance indicators against which the quality of supervision is monitored. Supervisors and supervisees are encouraged (or even expected) to sign a kind of ‘contract’ at their first meeting in which all these responsibilities, rights and duties of both partners are spelled out. With their signature, both sides confirm that they are aware of their roles. This will also guarantee that (culture-specific) different expectations a student may have had are clarified right at the beginning. It is also expected that records are kept of each meeting with brief statements about the content of the discussions  and the next steps agreed. These records too, are signed by both supervisor and supervisee, and they can be referred to in case of complaints, or to bring a new supervisor, if needed,  up to date.

 

 

Precept 14: Institutions will ensure that the quality of supervision is not put at risk as a result of an excessive volume and range of responsibilities assigned to individual supervisors.

 

In appointing supervisors, institutions need to be aware of and guided by the overall workload of the individual, including teaching, research, administration and other responsibilities, […]

 

Supervisors need time to provide adequate contact with each research student and to fulfil the responsibilities listed under Precept 13 above. Supervisors and students should agree between themselves the level of interaction required and what constitutes sufficient time, in terms of quality as well as quantity, to devote to the supervisory role. […]

 

Comment: This point again highlights the institutional responsibility. Even if in reality, potential research students very often contact an individual academic whom they would wish to have as a supervisor, in the end it is the institution that appoints the supervisors. In other words, academics are not selecting their supervisees themselves. Institutions are expected to specify a maximum number of research students one supervisor may have at the same time (at Aston University, the maximum number has been set as six students). As to the frequency and length of meetings, it has been recognised in the final version of the Code that these depend on the discipline, the nature of the research, and the status of the student, and that minimum thresholds cannot be prescribed. It is expected, however, that the ‘contract’ between supervisor and supervisee includes a statement about the frequency of meetings, and the questionnaires which research students are to complete once a year include questions to this effect.

 

Concluding comments:

As should have become clear in the extracts of the Code, research degrees in the UK are not seen as exclusively individual aspiration and personal fulfilment. Research degree programmes (note the word ‘programme’) are part of the higher education system, a system which is increasingly subject to monitoring, auditing, and control. Although, as mentioned above, the Code repeatedly refers to the variety of research students (e.g. full-time and part-time, different age and background), the requirements expressed in the precepts can more easily be assured if we are dealing with young full-time research students.

 

The Code needs to be seen in the context of the UK, where universities are expected to function like companies (a business and management culture), where most universities are short of money, where research students have to pay a fee, where research output is measured effectively in financial terms (the score in the Research Assessment Exercise, the number of PhD students, the completion rate, and similar factors decide on the amount of money universities can get from the government). In such an environment, it is understandable that universities develop policies and procedures with which to assure themselves and the government of the quality of research degree programmes. The QAA Code of practice sets out minimum standards for such programmes against which universities can judge their own practice. In view of all the required openness and transparency of research degrees, it is surprising to see that the final assessment of the PhD is still to be done ‘behind closed doors’, so to speak. In contrast to other countries where the final assessment is conducted in the form of a public defence or dispute, the practice in the UK is a viva, conducted by two examiners. The supervisor is allowed to be present, but must not be involved in the assessment; and very often it is not even known that a viva is taking place. The Code proposes the introduction of an independent, non-examining chair (Precept 23), a proposal which has been hotly disputed and resisted at my own university. It seems that academics, faced with increasing red tape and monitoring procedures (and the accompanying paperwork) want to hang on at least to one of their traditions and thus preserve some form of autonomy.

Based on my own experience as a PhD supervisor in the UK, and also familiar with the system in Germany, I would say that supervisors in the UK do indeed work within specific constraints, but that these constraints can also be seen as facilitating factors. Regular monitoring helps all parties to become aware of potential problems which otherwise might not have come to light (e.g. because the supervisee was too shy to mention problems). I would not want to be required to get a formal qualification as a supervisor, e.g. being made to attend a training programme where I have to sit exams and get a certificate. But I would have appreciated some form of training, had it been available, when I got my first PhD student. I would have found it useful had I been given some advise about what to expect from research students from particular countries, about how to (re)act when faced with particular problems at the interpersonal level. Without such advice at the beginning of the ‘career’ as a supervisor, we probably all try to do as our own supervisor did but not repeating things we were not happy with. New supervisors might be reluctant to ask more experienced colleagues for help when faced with a particular challenge, because they may not want others to know that not everything is working smoothly in the supervisory arrangements. Training at an institutional level, which allows for exchanging experience and sharing good practice, can thus be very useful for new supervisors.

 

In short, although the Code has been produced for the context of the UK, it contains proposals which should be useful for the arrangement of research supervision in other countries as well. The formalising of supervision should result in more efficient institutional arrangements of skills training for research students and thsu to an improvement of the completion rates. Whether such a formalisation also results in a higher quality of the research and the PhD thesis remains to be seen.