By Emerita Professor Denise Ferris
I recall thinking, decades ago, the introduction of Higher Degree Research (HDR) programs had reinvigorated the teaching and learning space. These programs added interactions for staff and candidates on topics of exciting diversity toward cultural insights. Establishing an environment outside of coursework limitations to grapple with diversified research and over extended periods. While revitalising, these additional programs at the same time contributed to workloads. To ensure research only academics are compelled to supervise, some institutions count supervisory load toward an academic’s research fraction.
Government funding changed to paying institutions at the resolution of the candidature and not upfront. As a result, institutions had to re-evaluate substantial and rising HDR numbers, secured through a combination of institutional reputation, access to scholarships, exceptional Honours conversion rates and the ability to undertake a lengthy program at distance, an option then rarely available for coursework programmes.
On the evidence nationally, the quality of PhD projects and candidates has not generally declined. Rather, within programs there is significant variance in the intrinsic capacity of individual candidates and the will to attention of supervisors. Examining over the last 15 years reveals that astute interceptions are not universal. Institutions can manage PhD expectations through robust and early progress evaluation, offering options including the research Masters for those candidates challenged by the demands of research.
Potentially the quality of supervision has improved as the processes, critical issues (timely intervention and rigour), and pitfalls have become more widely scrutinised. However once identified, these research training actions also need to be supported. At ANU, annual renewal processes to maintain HDR Supervisor Registration efficiently foreground some knowledge. But fundamental to quality all round, is collegiate in-sector advice and guidance from respected mentors.
The PhD and Masters continue to offer outstanding prospects for graduates focused on academic futures and/or those who value the immersion in their practice alongside the intellectual capital of other researchers, including peers. The PhD can deliver engagement with industry, which for some universities is felt as an increasing priority. But this should not come at a cost to fundamental research including practice-led, we need to resist the imperative that “applied” research, “vocationally” directed, should be the standard.
Models of professional industry engagement exist in surprising places. The Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA) in the UK for example are developed in partnership with organisations outside of higher education. These are included in the consortium Open-Oxford-Cambridge Universities Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP), which previously only Cambridge University offered and note the term “Training”. Their PhD conferences built around invited international students, six from ANU annually, were academically broad ranging and not necessarily “vocationally bound”.
The “individualism” of universities has facilitated a multiplicity of HDR processes including examination procedures. Examiners are either revealed to candidates or confidentiality retained. Electronic submission of documented practice, or installed exhibitions visited by examiners are just two of the possible examination modes. While I am unaware of oral examinations taking place in Australian practice-led exams, “discussions” with examiners in an exhibited installation have been a procedure in some instances. This informal dialogue is not considered a Viva but an opportunity for clarification.
Meeting examiners could be seen to offer advantages for both parties offering a kind of performative resolution for some candidates and a degree of insight for examiners. Though one could argue a risk to confidentiality and advantage or disadvantage to individual candidates in performing in-situ. Contrasting with repeat examiners, institutions also limit recurrence. If university HDR examination guidelines are clear do these national differences in examination matter to equity when even greater differences occur internationally?
One of the challenges of maintaining quality HDR provision is that experience and knowledge are lost when generational changes occur quickly and that has been the case in recent years. When institutions made experienced academics redundant in the unseemly haste over COVID financial panic, HDR supervisory panels became difficult to effectively staff. In future greater emphasis on mentoring less experienced colleagues is crucial to best practice HDR delivery. A focus on guidance in the examination process is also important to retaining trust in preserving high quality in HDR programs. A well-defined initiation for junior colleagues as examiners, establishing structures in the examination process with specific reference to advice, needs to be explored and this can be done without compromising the process.
Persevering with an HDR candidacy requires courage, and from all those involved. The candidate must hold belief and demonstrate the capacity for self-management of their project, maintaining both over a substantial period. The supervisory panel musters belief, and also sustains conviction, encouraging independence but in a context of knowing expectation and reassuring experience. Any candidature requires everyone participating to “have bottle”, which is to have courage and believe a solid and original submission will succeed.
With that understanding, HDR graduates in turn require analogous courage from their future institutions, compelling them to hold their “bottle” in the face of inevitable downturns. We call on tertiary institutions to recognise the value of our graduates and their evident achievements, demonstrating the vital influence and resilience of creative practices.
Leadership from a new Minister for Employment, Industrial Relations and Arts, a portfolio combination with more grit than the previous loose mix, will help to reignite the university’s high hopes in the cultural sector’s education and research. For our universities this Federal leadership can be instrumental in highlighting the cultural sector’s invaluable contribution and critical significance to the nation.
 At ANU examiners are paid a different rate for examining a Viva than an in-situ examination and discussion with an HDR candidate.
Denise Ferris, artist and educator, is Professor Emerita at ANU, and was Head of School, Art & Design, from 2013 – 2020 and Associate Dean (Education & Student) 2008 – 2011, contributing to the development of visual art, craft and design tertiary education in Australia. Previous Chair of ACUADS and continuing Executive member, she was elected to the board of the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Art (DDCA) in 2020. Her photographs are held in Australian public and international collections. Ferris is an advocate for inclusive education and culture, which recognises art and design as invaluable critical knowledge and crucial social engagement.