NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

High Hopes: Thoughts on Higher Degree Research (HDR) programs

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.

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.

The PhD can deliver engagement with industry … 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.

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.

HDR graduates … 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.

Models of professional industry engagement exist in surprising places. The Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA)[1] 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)[2], which previously only Cambridge University offered and note the term “Training”[3]. 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.[4] 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.

[1] https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/collaborative-doctoral-awards

[2] https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk

[3] https://www.ahrcdtp.csah.cam.ac.uk

[4] 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.

More from this issue

More from this issue

If the debates about the state of the creative arts PhD appear to have slowed down over the last 15 years, it is perhaps not only due to a contraction of the sector, but because the questions being asked of it are no longer in sync with forces driving structural change, whether in the academy, the creative arts, or in the world more broadly.

There is a part to working in a university that I love – every week I get to work with at least one PhD or Masters (Higher Degree in Research or HDR) student. They are often guided by a sense of purpose and eager to find a way to be a part of a university. HDR students bridge the worlds of artistic practice, creativity and scholarship.

This brief piece responds to the questions of how the PhD might be re-conceived and what necessary combination of changes might ensure its ongoing quality and appeal to a new generation of creative-arts scholars keen to challenge established boundaries in the public domain. In the context of communication and creative arts, aesthetics has something significant to do in relationship to generating and communicating research findings and presenting or challenging the facts of a matter.

Higher degrees by research, in any discipline, are significant but humble undertakings, and bring together a whole set of relationships and expectations, intersecting across and between the candidate researchers, supervisors, institutions, and the wider political economy and policy agenda in relation to research training and its funding. Invested and vested interests can get very partial or biased about the relevance of a research project or practice. The lack of a real or practiced arms-length approach to federal research funding in Australia is a problem.

As we inch closer to the 100-year anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, it is timely to remind ourselves that journeys in knowledge are rarely linear or constructed from large waypoints. This great creative work, a masterclass in the relations of part and whole, is roughly contemporary with another creative work which is only now hitting it stride – the doctorate.

Graduate degrees in the performing arts are now well established in Australia, with graduates employed in various university departments. The exegesis/project combination of these degrees holds different weightings across the various universities that offer them … The unfolding of the relationship of writing to practice also occurs in vastly different modes across institutions.

By Professor David Cross — Artists with PhDs is the name of a blog by American art historian James Elkins founded some fifteen years ago to question the value and validity of the PhD in the creative arts. Framed around his “Fourteen Reasons to Mistrust the PhD”, Elkins has over time taken on the role of eminence grise of practice-based PhD scepticism believing that artists of any persuasion, but specifically visual arts should not be undertaking doctoral research.[i]