Postgraduate supervisory models practised at CPUT and UCT 

Published On: 14 November 2022|

Speaking at the recent meeting of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice (CoP) for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (PGES), Professor Dina Burger, Director: Research reported on the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT)’s Sisonke Supervision Mentorship Programme.

Professor Burger (right) said that the model they had developed for postgraduate supervision was unlike any other in the world, because it was co-designed by mentors and mentees themselves. It was based on real needs and ideas from the collective and all stakeholders had had the opportunity to contribute.

Furthermore, “we were flying the plane while building it,” she said, as it had been a research project from the outset, with no clear distinction between research and design, or moving from the abstract to the concrete.

When CPUT’s 2030 vision challenged the institution to double its postgraduate numbers, Professor Burger decided this needed a systemic approach, but one that incorporated what she called “soft issues, the relational issues”. These were the things that could impact on the student experience, the things that happen between topic decision, proposal approval, the literature review, the field work, collecting and analysing data, and writing the research report, she said.

This was how the Sisonke Supervision Mentorship Programme was born. It was co-designed by about 10 mentors and mentees, who represented diverse departments and faculties on all levels across the institution.

“We decided to design a unique CPUT programme, rather than to use existing mentorship programmes to cater for our unique context,” said Professor Burger. Not even having to operate remotely during the CoViD pandemic dampened their creative spirit, although working online for most of the process was not ideal. The programme was approved by CPUT’s executive management and its Council, which meant there was buy-in from the top down to the faculties.

Sisonke was officially launched in May. They compiled and circulated mentors’ profiles, and mentees were paired with mentors based on negotiations among themselves. The list was continuously updated.

The training development programme, populated with topics and presenters based on the mentee’s needs, was offered on MS Teams every week for 15 weeks. It was structured as presentations, a plenary, then 40-minute individual mentor-mentee sessions, a reflection period of 20 minutes, followed by parallel sessions in the main room for those who were unable to meet the mentors and mentees. The core team reflected on the sessions and planned the next one accordingly.

Burger said the programme soon gained traction and was said to be of great value. The attendance was excellent throughout. Sixty to 80 people attended each weekly session. The programme became what is known as a “brave space”, where people felt they could use the opportunity to ask questions and share their practices.

They presented four papers about Sisonke at the 8th Post-graduate Supervision Conference in March, presented virtually by Stellenbosch University, and are currently finalising journal articles.

For the next step, CPUT will develop a three-year capacity-building programme for collaborative supervision of PhD students.

UCT does not advocate a “one size fits all” approach to supervision

Peter Meissner, Professor of Medical Biochemistry and Director of Postgraduate Studies and Researcher Development at the University of Cape Town (UCT), said they all recognised that universities’ different contexts affected the nature of their supervision. Yet within the research component of their various postgraduate offerings, the core component of student learning and growth was the student-supervisor relationship.

Professor Meissner said the one-on-one supervisory relationship is “moving with the times, not just in South Africa, but across the world, into a team approach to providing guidance, direction, mentorship.

“The bottom line is that diversified supervision process approaches are becoming increasingly necessary to manage not only the specific challenges, but the generic challenges,” he said. He listed these as including the increased demand for better throughputs and lower attrition rates, the diverse lived experiences of students and, what he referred to as “the elephant in the room”, the potential power imbalance of the student-supervisor relationship.

And it was all about sharing good practice, as the CoP PGES was doing.

He said supervisory training at UCT was “available and happening” but seldom taken up by senior academics. In his cluster in the last five years, 273 research and academic staff had participated in their programme. Of these, only 30 were above senior lecturer level, 49 were senior lecturers, and the majority – who also reflected the programme’s focus – had been at junior level. In the same period, 354 postdocs had received post-graduate supervision training.

They were now setting up plans to incentivise senior staff, especially “busy professors.” He said he was purposefully using the term in inverted commas, for professors to attend supervisory training. They were likely to drop the term “supervisory training” and refer instead to faculties and departments setting up “communities of practice around supervision” which might be semantically more enticing to senior staff, he said.

They would, however, continue to target young researchers because uptake was good and they had well-developed programmes, he said.

Like Wits, UCT also had teams supervising cohorts of students, for example, in the Law Faculty and the Graduate School of Business. “It tends to be the smaller units or departments or faculties that can manage that type of approach,” he said.

He said they did not support a “one-size-fits-all approach” for supervision and supervisory training. “Alternative models are being initiated across faculties albeit at different rates,” he said.

“I think the key frustration in our student-supervisor relationship remains a mismatch between the students’ and supervisors’ expectations, and that can include the availability or non-availability of the supervisor for both informal and formal discussions,” he said.

To mitigate this, UCT has set up memoranda of understanding, conducted online, which have become source documents referred to throughout the year. He said it was necessary to improve the knowledge of expectations around degrees. This information was in student handbooks, but most students admitted they had not read them in any detail. “So, the academics’ purpose and expectations for successful completion of those programmes is sometimes very different from the students’ expectations,” he said.

With the huge increase in student administrative processes, UCT had appointed departmental post-graduate conveners to support supervisors and, to a certain extent, to alleviate the time and effort supervisors need to spend with their various individual students.

The next meeting of the CoP PGES will be in February 2023. It will focus on the nuts and bolts of putting post-graduate training programmes in place, with a presentation by the CoP’s Working Group on Funding about the financial aspects of this.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.