Editorial: The Contemporary Research Degree: Whose project is it anyway?

By Professor Craig Batty

The research degree in Australia has come under “intense” scrutiny over the past three years, namely as a result of the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) Review of Research Training. I use the word ‘intense’ – with quote marks – purposely. While the ACOLA Review suggested many things, particularly in relation to the 2015 Watt Report’s “demands” of changes to the country’s research ecosystem (industry collaboration, block-grant funding), it appears that not so many have been enacted. Or rather, while infrastructural and funding changes have taken place, pedagogic matters are still under construction.

For example, the much-promoted internship program, APR.Intern (formerly AMSI Intern), has been launched, but how many candidates are actually engaged in it? In particular, how many Creative Arts – even HASS – candidates have been part of it? How much end-user engagement has been embedded in the “new” research degree, not on an individual or serendipitous case, but structurally through universities? Again, how many Creative Arts/HASS candidates – given the very large pool – are engaged in reciprocal knowledge discovery? And which universities have introduced coursework into the degree beyond methods training? Are transferrable skills – economic, environmental, societal, etc. – being taught alongside the thesis, or are they happenstance outcomes? Once again, how has the Creative Arts sector responded to this?

This issue of NiTRO allows us to reflect on the contemporary Creative Arts research degree, asking: Whose project is it anyway? While the ACOLA Review might suggest the degree be less about the artist/maker/practitioner-researcher’s project and more about how their research training might contribute to an enhanced Australian society, how much of a reality is this? In this issue we ask leaders and emerging leaders in the field to discuss their experiences and views on the research degree today. Representing national and international voices in research training, supervision and policy, in the creative arts, creative industries and more broadly, we hope this issue provides interesting and timely perspectives in this time of “still under construction”. 

Alistair McCulloch (UniSA) begins by taking the ACOLA Review head on, outlining the challenges of pushing the boundaries of knowledge and research training environments, while simultaneously providing continuity of standards and retaining disciplinary integrity.

Allyson Holbrook (Newcastle) follows with a view that in this massified, diversifying and increasingly time-straitened space that has become doctoral education, it is easy to lose perspective about the level and type of learning that the degree represents. By scaffolding and “taming” the research journey, are we stunting the potential for knowledge and candidate transformation?

Speaking of the Government’s Engagement and Impact agenda specifically, Jen Webb (Canberra) contests that the policies and regulations that underpin this agenda make explicit and reportable what many creative artists have been doing anyway.

Sandra Gattenhof, Lee McGowan and Donna Hancox (QUT) discuss the push for candidate internships, arguing that within the creative arts and creative industries – fields that are often small, subsistence-based enterprises – the shine of appeal for such a scheme is not so bright.

Craig Batty (UTS), Robyn Barnacle, Denise Cuthbert and Christine Schmidt (RMIT) draw on their study of HASS graduates, outlining that the potential for knowledge transfer with entities beyond the university, during candidature and post-graduation, is strong and an important site for multi-sector knowledge transfer.

Gina Wisker (Brighton, UK) speaks about her experience of supervising and examining creative writing doctorates, asking if the contemporary doctorate can push the boundaries of academic research, claiming a space where creativity meets scholarship.

Finally, Cat Hope and Jo Lindsay (Monash) discuss potential models for collaborative, industry-informed doctoral programs and projects that might usefully bring together “real-world” problems with the skills and capabilities of creative artists.