International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Constraints and Enablements of Postgraduate Supervision

Sioux McKenna, Chrissie Boughey, Rhodes University, South Africa


Abstract A focus on social justice in education pushes us to ask questions about who gets access to higher education and who succeeds. Despite widening access on a global scale, universities continue to privilege certain groups of people over others (Case, 2016 Thinkpiece). This presentation seeks to turn these concerns to the postgraduate sector. This paper analyses evaluation data, assessor reports and interviews with facilitators of a staff development course entitled Strengthening Postgraduate Supervision (www.postgraduatesupervision.com). The course has been offered more than 40 times at twenty universities over the past four years and comprises face-to-face sessions and online activity, and is assessed through a reflective essay. In order to understand the enablements and constraints on postgraduate supervision that emerged from the data, we have adopted Archer’s analytical dualism (1995, 2000) in which we analyse the interplay of what Archer refers to as the ‘people’ and the ‘parts’ (1995). In the case of postgraduate supervision, the key people are supervisors and postgraduate scholars. But to assume that the events that occur during postgraduate supervision are primarily or entirely as a result of their agency is to be guilty of what Archer terms ‘upwards conflation’ (2000) so this presentation moves beyond looking at the role of the ‘people’ involved to also consider the ‘parts’. Structures, in Archer’s terms (1995, 2000), are the material resources and their relations to the world. So a Higher Degrees Committee, for example, may act as a structural constraint or enablement in the realm of postgraduate supervision. Culture refers to ideas, beliefs and values that permeate a group or a context. So disciplinary norms can, for example, act as a cultural enablement or constraint in postgraduate supervision. The preliminary findings are that the nature of the university has a significant bearing on the ways in which a novice supervisor can develop her practices. Furthermore some universities are highly hierarchical and this affects the affordances available to the novice supervisor. The dominance of the apprenticeship model of supervision is seen to be largely beyond question even though supervisors often experienced this as isolating. Supervisors have very little knowledge about how to support the writing process and this was a key issue of concern and often the basis on which issues of social (in)justice were raised. The close-up data presented provides useful lessons to be taken into account at system level if we are to have a socially just postgraduate sector.


Supervision, staff development, social justice, postgraduate education

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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