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Wednesday, July 3 • 11:30am - 12:30pm
The constrained autonomy of the postgraduate supervisor

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This study looks at how postgraduate education has been conceptualised in universities in South Africa. It does this in the context of the so-called ‘knowledge economy’, where there is enormous pressure on postgraduate supervisors to increase their supervision loads and to ensure students complete their studies and graduate in minimum time. A number of drivers have been put in place to encourage supervisors to this end, such as funding incentives and promotion criteria. Postgraduate education is a complex pedagogy which entails the supervisor supporting both the knowledge production process and the development of a knower as a legitimate member of a disciplinary community. The supervision aspect of postgraduate education has been very well researched as a teaching practice with conferences and special editions of journals dedicated to the matter. Furthermore, a number of books and supervision courses (such as www.postgradsupervision.com and https://www0.sun.ac.za/crest/dies-crest-online-training-course/) have been developed to support the supervisor as she takes on this challenging yet intellectually rewarding task. However, there has been much less focus on the broader context in which postgraduate supervision occurs and the ways in which the context may enable or constrain the roles the supervisor might play (Motshoane & McKenna, 2014). This blind spot has the potential to suggest that the supervisor has complete autonomy over the postgraduate process and has the agency to determine the outcome. Though there is some acknowledgement in the literature that the student also has a large degree of power over the way in which the postgraduate process plays out, what is generally lacking in this literature on postgraduate education is a nuanced consideration of the roles played by the structure of the target knowledge, the culture of the department or postgraduate programme, the ethos of the broader research environment, and so on.

This study applies concepts from the Autonomy dimension of Legitimation Code Theory (with a smidgeon of Specialisation). Autonomy provides the means to identify the underlying principles of practices, principles, beliefs and dispositions of actors. Autonomy allows the analysis of actors, ideas and objects to see the ways in which these are organised according to particular principles. The analysis in this case makes evident the strength of the boundaries between the roles of various actors involved in postgraduate education, between the various concepts of postgraduate education, and between other mechanisms that emerge in the context as enabling or constraining postgraduate education.

This study analyses the extent to which the varied mechanisms affecting the postgraduate education journey are conceptualised and taken into consideration by three sets of actors: postgraduate scholars, postgraduate supervisors and those tasked with some form of oversight of the postgraduate process, such as Deputy Vice-Chancellors: Research, Faculty Deans and Postgraduate Directors. The study also analyses the supervision policies of ten universities.

The study to date has indicated that supervisors generally have strong positional autonomy and are strongly bounded in relation to other actors. Their roles are generally well defined in the documentation and their sense of themselves and the way they are defined by others is fairly explicitly classified.

The study found great variance in relational autonomy. In institutions with strong research cultures, there is relatively strong relational autonomy whereby practices of supervision seem to draw to a large extent on the specific specialisation code that is evident in the discipline or on the values and interests of the individual supervisor. In institutions with a small number of postgraduate students and weaker research cultures, the relational autonomy seems to be weaker with institutional requirements playing a significant role in the ways in which supervision occurs across all faculties. This has implications for the development of strong research cultures, where the nurturing of autonomy may be key.


Wednesday July 3, 2019 11:30am - 12:30pm
Room B47

Attendees (1)