what happens to supervision when there are high levels of precarious academic employment?

This is a guest post from Margaret Robertson and Jeanette Fyffe at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

In our recent article we raise questions about the overlooked issue of supervision of research students, particularly PhD students, when there are fewer and fewer ongoing academics to supervise doctoral research studies. Precarious employees lack the tenure to safely lead supervision. If they are assigned supervision responsibilities it can only be a co-supervisor, and there are examples of academics whose careers are curtailed by the lack of opportunity to develop in supervisory roles. The issues of precarious employment are most prevalent in the UK with zero hour contracts, and in Australia with sessional contracts.

Our article reports on a case study of a research only department in a large research intensive Australian university.

In the last two decades the discourse emanating from government focuses on the rising costs of higher education and successive governments in the UK and Australia have demanded that universities increase numbers of full-fee paying students (international students) and prune on-going expenses by reducing numbers of tenured staff. Up to 70% of teaching in undergraduate and masters by course work is undertaken by short term contract academics. This places an increased burden of administration on tenured staff who are assigned responsibility to supervise temporary staff, and thus reduces their teaching opportunities. Few join the academy to become administrators.

There has been increasing research and publicity into the plight of insecure employment on academic staff and new graduates who had aspired to join the academy. No thought appears to have been given to the issue of supervising the rising numbers of doctoral students with reduced capacity.

Simultaneously with the rise of managerialism and cost cutting has been policy changes to ensure that doctoral students have at least two supervisors (team supervision). As a policy it is designed to ensure that the student has access to continuous supervision should one supervisor become unavailable for any reason. The impetus for this policy development has been to increase the number of completions and the timeliness of those completions.  It also shelters students to some degree from the effects of instability of co-supervisors on short term contracts.

Our research case study demonstrates how the department adjusted to collaborative modes of team supervision well before the policy was implemented at the university as a means of ensuring quality supervision. However there are significant negative impacts on the academic staff such as the few ongoing staff having very high numbers of supervisions and the lack of career development opportunity for short-term casual staff.

While government discourses focus on the cost of higher education they ignore the investment in human capital that higher education contributes to longer term national economic development interests. A highly skilled, well-educated workforce is required for future development that rests with the power of the intellect.

Margaret J Robertson is an Early career researcher with a specialisation in postgraduate research supervision. Her thesis investigated team supervision as it is practiced in Australian universities, and particularly in the ways that power is used within the supervisory relationships to enable or silence members of the team. Subsequent work has focused on developing ideas on how power in its various forms can be used to enhance or constrain team function and open opportunities for the rich development of new knowledge.

Jeanette Fyffe is the manager of the Research Education and Development team in the Graduate Research School which is responsible for research education across all career stages at La Trobe University. She is interested in researcher development, most especially the role of intellectual climate in the formation of scholars, and is currently actively and collegially studying the ‘idea of the university’.

Margaret J Robertson & Jeanette Fyffe (2018): What happens to doctoral supervision when university departments have high levels of precarious academic employment?: An Australian case study, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2018.1522268

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