SA universities are reimagining postgraduate supervision in diverse ways

Published On: 14 November 2022|

The student-supervisor relationship at universities is changing. It is no longer bound to the model where the post-graduate is the apprentice of the supervisor. Now the approach is towards group supervision, cohort training and sharing of resources.

Should South Africa adopt the route of collaborative doctoral training centres as in the UK, or pre-doctoral training courses such as those offered at some universities in the US, asked Professor Stephanie Burton of the University of Pretoria. Or should we take the models of cohort and collaborative training to build our own capacity?

Professor Burton was addressing the recent meeting of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice (CoP) for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (PGES), which was focusing on supervision models and their implementation.

She said South African universities all talk about increasing their number of postgraduate students, but if they did not have the capacity to provide more people to supervise the research, this enrolment would be a huge challenge.

“What we need to be thinking about is not only increasing the number of supervisors, but smarter ways of providing supervision,” she said.

The new CoP PGES committee

Burton was addressing the meeting of the Community of Practice as interim chair of its steering committee. In the same meeting, nominations for a new committee were presented, followed by online voting which yielded the following results:

Professor Stephanie Burton (left), a Biochemistry Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Campus and Universities South Africa’s Research Fellow, was confirmed the substantive Chair for the three-year term of office starting on 1 January 2023 to 31 December 2025.

Professor Sibusiso Moyo (below right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, was voted in as Deputy Chair.

Professor Jesika Singh, DVC for Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Limpopo, is USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group representative on the committee.

Other committee members are Professor Annah Moteetee, Senior Director of the Postgraduate School at the University of Johannesburg, and Professor Roger Coopoosamy of the Mangosuthu University of Technology.

Why postgraduate supervision is important

Professor Burton said high quality supervisory capacity is critical for students to be successful, and it is an area of expertise that South Africa needs to develop further.

Many universities have postgraduate centres. They provide the advantages of supporting training supervisors, monitoring the experience of postgraduates, and assisting with administration and recruitment. Burton advocated for postgraduate centres, saying her mantra was: “Somebody needs to wake up every morning and worry about the postgraduates in the institution”.

Five scholars shared information on postgraduate supervision models at their institutions.

Doctoral committees and team supervision at Wits

Professor Liz Brenner (right) has been contracted to conduct the supervisor development project to establish how supervisors are currently supported by learning opportunities offered by the Centre for Learning, Teaching and Development (CLTD), Research Office, and in the various faculties and schools of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

She said the apprenticeship model of postgrad supervision is very rife, but that the model comes in various modifications. These include:

  • Doctoral committees, which meet mostly twice a year where the students present their work for discussion. Committee members said they learned a lot from other supervisors.
  • Group supervision, where the supervisor does not usually see the students one-to-one and has hired a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab to assist students with day-to-day activities. The students meet with the supervisor as a group in formal meetings every two weeks.
  • Team supervision for students at different levels,
  • Research weekends for PhD, master’s and honours students four times a year where the students present their work to supervisors, in groups. Each presentation has a student assigned to respond to it. Feedback shared suggests that the students learn from invited speakers, methodology workshops and their colleagues, and it becomes a community of practice which extends beyond their supervisor.
  • Cohort supervision, via a compulsory taught module of research design for M Ed students but is also open to PhD students who attend voluntarily. It is aimed at guiding students into producing a proposal at the end of the module. “Having done it myself many years ago, I know that I am still in contact with some of those people with whom I did that module,” said Brenner.
  • A type of cohort with students at various levels, attended by various supervisors, who meet every Friday morning. “It is compulsory. Nobody dares miss that Friday morning journal club,” said Brenner. The discussion is on methodology, and they evaluate results of their research. This gathering is in addition to the students’ individual formal face-to- face meeting with their supervisors every month.
  • NEST, the narrative enquiry for Social Transformation Project, supported by the Mellon Foundation, involves cohort supervision. It is interdisciplinary, but uses the methodology of narrative in structured activities such as reading group discussions; and
  • Regular monthly meetings with about 12 students and co-supervisors. This was in addition to their one-on-one meetings with supervisors, so it was an add-on to the apprenticeship model.

CUT has published books on the development of the supervisor

Professor Laetus Lategan (left), Dean: Research & Innovation at the Central University of Technology, who has completed nearly 20 years in CUT’s research office and recently completed a second doctorate, said the institution has published several books on the development of post-graduate studies, and the development of the supervisor, mostly through African Sun Media, where they are available online.

He said the ideal supervisor needs to be committed, as does the student. But a successful supervisor will realise their role is to “inspire the student to eventually be the master of the particular topic,” he said. He added, however, that supervisors cannot do it all on their own. There needs to be a value chain of support.

UNIVEN is changing its postgraduate studies culture

Professor Nosisi Feza (left), Deputy Vice- Chancellor: Research and Post Graduate Studies at the University of Venda (UNIVEN) said her institution was focusing on changing its culture to one where postgraduate qualification will have value. She said post-graduate students had been staying too long in the system – for example, taking 12 years for a master’s – and in some cases supervisors may be working outside their specialty areas.

“Each and every academic who was supervising were set in their own ways and were somewhat resistant to changing,” she said.Appointed in July last year, she had started by reviewing and updating UNIVEN’s policies. The University’s research and postgraduate strategy, approved earlier this year, requires supervisors to be active scholars themselves. This is after observing a trend that “once our students get their PhD, they are unable to move forward in academia; they are not equipped to publish and to become researchers and scholars. We need to ask ourselves: ‘what are you teaching if you are not a scholar? What informs your teaching practice?” she said.

With a memorandum of agreement now in place, the roles of the supervisor and student are now clearly stipulated.

In conjunction with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA), UNIVEN is paying particular attention to supervisors’ teaching workload to address the challenge of students staying too long in the system – because of supervisors possibly being too busy to engage them.

“We are reimagining ourselves,” Professor Feza said, referring to their newly instituted monitoring processes. For example, a master’s student is required to prove that they have submitted an article for publication, and a doctoral student needs to demonstrate that they have published.

She said UNIVEN is leading in specific niche areas, thanks to its rural setting that allows it to lead in indigenous knowledge systems in fields such as agriculture and conservation science. “We encourage our students to work on projects that have impact and relevance in the society,” she said. They also encourage students to identify challenges, in communities, that they could investigate in their research. “We make sure that our mentoring is not a talk show,” said Professor Feza.

Other contributors to this conversation were Professor Dina Burger, Director: Research at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Professor Peter Meissner, Director of Post-graduate Studies and Researcher Development at the University of Cape Town.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.