NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

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

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.

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.

More from this issue

More from this issue

The Australian doctorate is a relative newcomer, the first having been awarded by the University of Melbourne in 1948 … 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.

In the massified, diversifying and increasingly time-straitened space that has become doctoral education in Australia, it is easy to lose perspective about the level and type of learning that the degree represents. Institutions seek a smooth and efficient passage of candidature … when in fact candidate development presents a range of complex learning challenges – particularly, one might argue, in the creative doctorate, where many modes of thinking and practice exist.

In the mid-1990s I embarked on a doctorate, deploying social research to study the field of artistic production. In the mid-2000s I embarked on a second doctorate, deploying creative writing to study questions of embodiment. The motivation for each project was similar: I wanted to investigate a phenomenon with the intention of finding answers to questions I had, which I thought had value beyond satisfying my own curiosity.

To Higher Degree Research (HDR) students in most disciplines, a paid internship can be a helpful torch to the light their way to the end of the tunnel. The prospect is especially attractive where it fills the scholarship-free period between submission and receipt of examiner reports. For practitioner-researchers … who are often operating as sole-traders working project to project within the creative industries … the shine of such a scheme’s appeal is not quite as bright.

The return on Government investment and graduate career outcomes have been key focus areas of the Australian doctorate in recent years, following similar scrutiny internationally. Propelled in Australia by the 2016 ACOLA Review … there has been significant emphasis on how doctoral candidates can engage with “end users” (the dominant reading of this is “industry”) during their candidature, with a view to seeing this translate into end-user impact.

Why would a creative writer, whose ideas are born in images and dreams, whose expression flows from them first like a spring and then a fabulous waterfall lit up by a rainbow of light, want to be so curtailed, constrained and managed by the shape and journey of a doctoral thesis? Is there a way of re-claiming the space to connect creativity with scholarship?

DDCA Vice President Cat Hope joins Monash University’s Associate Dean Enterprise Jo Lindsay in conversation about the changes in postgraduate research training that have recently taken place.