Form and function and ownership: reflections on continuity and change and the ACOLA Review

By Professor Alistair McCulloch

The Australian doctorate is a relative newcomer, the first having been awarded by the University of Melbourne in 1948. Our doctorate exhibited a period of relative stability regarding its form and delivery during the first 40-45 years of existence, but more recently it has been through more turbulent times, namely from the ACOLA (Australian Council of Learned Associations) Review of Australia’s Research Training System (2016). The review was not an isolated event, but just another point in a process during which the nature of doctoral education has changed fundamentally, with implications for all disciplines including the creative arts.

For some observers of the doctoral scene, these developments can be perceived as threatening; for others, they are seen as impacting positively on the development of high-quality researchers and research outputs.

Established by Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition government, The ACOLA Review was one of a number of developments presaged in Research Skills for an Innovative Future, a paper first published in 2011 by Julia Gillard’s Labor government. These documents were just two contributions to a long process (one mirrored in jurisdictions across the globe) during which doctoral education has gradually been repositioned away from research education and towards research training. Associated with this repositioning has been the increasing integration of doctoral education into the government’s strategic economic policy and associated workforce planning.

Research Skills for an Innovative Future laid down four priorities for the future doctorate, priorities that have survived three changes of Prime Minster and three general elections:

  • To review the research training support program, the RTS

  • To examine of the cost of research training provision in Australian universities

  • To develop new models for research training that explicitly focus on the professional employment needs of graduates

  • To establish research standards and quality benchmarks for research training, and to monitor them. (DIISR, 2011, pp. 24-25).

These priorities fed directly into the ACOLA Review, in particular its key findings 4 (“broader transferable skills development is a necessary aspect of HDR training”), 5 (“increased industry engagement”) and 6 (the development and promotion of industry placements). While the review made only six detailed recommendations, most universities read the report judiciously and viewed it as guidance with which it would be sensible to align. However, in most cases the direction suggested was the direction institutions had already been moving for a decade or more. For example:

  • As doctoral education has been consolidated into the areas of public policy relating to innovation and economic development, ownership of the doctorate as an “idea” has expanded from its being owned by the discipline and those who practice in it, to one where ownership is increasingly shared with government and industry (generally understood as potential end-users of the research outputs).

  • An increasing concern with both the overall economic efficiency of the doctoral process and the timely completion of individual students’ programs of research.  

  • A broadening in the acceptable modes of presentation of work through which “doctorateness” can be demonstrated. Instead of simply the thesis as a “big book”, PhDs are increasingly awarded on the basis of: a program of study involving part-coursework; a thesis incorporating published papers; a thesis solely comprised of papers previously published, with an accompanying exegesis; a piece or collection of creative outputs with an accompanying exegesis; a performance, and so on.

  • The apprenticeship model involving one supervisor and one student has been supplanted by a variety of models, all of which involve more than one supervisor. In practice, one supervisor is likely to take the lead (and will sometimes be the only active supervisor irrespective of what the regulations may say) but the norm is now for there to be a supervisory team, and increasingly this team will involve external members who represent industry.

  • Increasing homogeneity in the way doctorates are managed and evaluated. These developments have been driven by government-mandated data requirements for universities, and sector-wide initiatives such as the Good Practice Framework for Research Training (ECU 2013).

So where does this leave us? For some observers of the doctoral scene, these developments can be perceived as threatening; for others, they are seen as impacting positively on the development of high-quality researchers and research outputs.

On the negative side, some of the changes in doctoral education/training reflect a processual bias, which is sometime reinforced by the introduction of IT-based systems designed to manage candidature and associated skills training. Some of the procedures being adopted (e.g., requirements to produce a full research proposal within the first six months of candidature) reflect practice more common in the sciences than the humanities, and are held to be constricting rather than liberating, and as posing challenges to the creative process inherent in making an original contribution to knowledge.

Such education and training also provide opportunities for the development of cross-disciplinary understanding and collaboration, which can also help overcome the isolation and associated wellbeing problems often attributed to doctoral study in the arts and humanities, where the "solo scholar" is the dominant model.

Further, internships and transferable skills can be seen as trying to compress more and more activity into an already a highly constrained timeframe. Creativity cannot always be programmed into a process with a tightly defined timeframe, and for some the danger is that supervisors may be inclined to steer their candidates towards “safe” projects rather than more speculative ones that have a higher degree of risk, but that may produce more creative outcomes. It is vital to remember that both creativity and candidate development lie at the centre of the PhD (AQF 2013, p. 64)

This all said, education undertaken in the philosophy of research and training in research techniques help provide both the knowledge and understanding necessary to successful doctoral education, as well as the space for the possibility of serendipity: “finding something of value while seeking something entirely different or ... finding a sought-after object (or idea) in a place or manner where it was not at all expected” (Shulman 2004, p. xiv). Such education and training also provide opportunities for the development of cross-disciplinary understanding and collaboration, which can also help overcome the isolation and associated wellbeing problems often attributed to doctoral study in the arts and humanities, where the “solo scholar” is the dominant model.

Change in the doctorate is, like death and taxes, inevitable. The challenges are to provide continuity of standards and experience within the context of that change, and to retain disciplinary integrity and standards while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of those disciplines – and increasingly, working across disciplinary boundaries in search of original thinking. The responsibility for this lies with us as designers and deliverers of doctoral education, both at the level of the institution and the individual candidate. In discharging that responsibility, we would do well to bear in mind the design adage that form follows function, and therefore that as the function of the doctorate changes, so does its form. In the light of the direction of change, however, perhaps we need to make an addition to the adage – to the effect that function follows ownership – to help us remember the importance of ensuring that any competing ownership claims are kept in balance.

References

AQF (2013). Australian Qualifications Framework Second Edition January 2013, p. 64. https://www.aqf.edu.au/ [Accessed 18 Sept 2019]

DIISR (2011). Research Skills for an Innovative Future: A Research Workforce Strategy To Cover The Decade To 2020 And Beyond. Retrieved from: http://www.innovation.gov.au/Research/ResearchWorkforceIssues/Documents/ResearchSkillsforanInnovativeFuture.pdf

ECU (2013). Good Practice Framework for Research Training: Steering us in the right direction towards research training quality. https://www.ecu.edu.au/centres/graduate-research-school/good-practice-framework-for-research-training [Accessed 18 Sept 2019]

Shulman, J.  (2004). 'Introduction', in R. K. Merton & E. Barber, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, Princeton University Press.


Alistair McCulloch has been Head of Research Education at the University of South Australia since 2009, following 12 years as Dean of Research and Knowledge Transfer at the UK’s Edge Hill University. Previously Professor of Public Administration at Scotland’s Robert Gordon University, he has been involved in the delivery and management of doctoral education for over 30 years. In 2017, he was awarded (jointly with Dr Cassandra Loeser) a national AAUT Citation for his work in doctoral supervision. Alistair is interested in the nature of doctoral education as an area of both practice and scholarship, and has recently published an argument for considering it a discipline in its own right. He has acted as Chair of the international Quality in Postgraduate Research conference since 2012. He writes here in a personal capacity.