Improve supervision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students
It is well established that high-quality supervision is the critical foundation of a successful HDR experience for all HDR students (DIISR 2011a, p. 14). Supervisors provide the academic guidance, teaching, capacity building and mentoring, as well as the emotional support, to assist a student to produce high-quality research.
A 2004 report on the pedagogy of research supervision found that ‘supervisors who are more “hands-on” in their approach to supervision tend to be associated with faster and more completions’. Keywords were availability, reliability, trust, reciprocity and teamwork (Sinclair 2004, p. vi, cited in DIISR 2011a, p. 16).
Consultations and submissions reinforced that the quality of supervision is a critical element of the postgraduate experience.96 They also indicated a need for supervisors to provide guidance, expert knowledge and assistance in developing research skills, while taking into account the student’s cultural background.
Cultural differences can affect expectations, chosen fields of research and instinctive learning approaches and methods. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students whose academic focus is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge had some specific issues identifying, as a priority, methods that are culturally acceptable to communities (for example, a preference for allegory and extended conversation, deference to authority and avoidance of critique). As one PhD holder described:
I had to approach my work in ways that had not been done before because existing methodologies were offensive to our mob and theories did not do the right job in explaining who we are. I could not find anyone in my field to talk it through with.97
Another student noted:
Based on my experience it is more important that you have a good supervisor that understands you and works in the same way you do … One bad supervisor could be the critical thing that loses ‘us’ (Trudgett 2011, p. 392–393).
These are important reflections for supervisors because, of course, it is also their job to ensure that advanced training in disciplinary methods is provided. This is true in both cultural studies and in medicine. Empathy must be combined with rigour for an effective supervisory relationship.
Many present and past Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students consulted as part of the Review have had positive experiences with supervision. For example, a survey respondent at the IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum reported:
My supervisor was caring and committed to my project—open and keen to learn.98
A number of submissions spoke of the considerable goodwill of non-Indigenous supervisors. A submission, for example, indicated that some academics were reluctant to take on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students ‘through fear of “getting it wrong”’ (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 21).
Survey work on this issue undertaken as part of a doctoral thesis in 2008 also showed a general consensus among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students that supervision played an important role in the academic experience (Trudgett 2008, p. 140, cited in Trudgett 2011, p. 392).
In 2008, according to the survey of 55 students, 70.9% had a non-Indigenous supervisor; 21.8% had an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander supervisor (and 7.3% had no supervisor as they were masters by coursework students). Interestingly, those students who identified as being part of a local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community thought it was extremely important to have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander supervisor (47%), while only 14% of those who did not identify as part of a local community expressed a similar view. This illustrates a diversity of needs depending on the student, location, the field of interest and thesis topic (Trudgett 2011, pp. 391–2).
This research also found that most students prefer an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander supervisor where their research deals substantially with Indigenous subject matter (Trudgett 2011, p. 391).
While there were many instances of supervisors who were able to support student achievement, generally the ability of university supervisors to understand student needs in a culturally sensitive way was regarded as lacking. This suggests a need to better understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in the university context.
Through consultations, the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council and PhD holders suggested that:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander supervision be a competency within a university’s internal accredited supervisor training. Training should include information on the types of barriers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students face and how supervisors can best support them.
- universities ensure that co-supervision arrangements are available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students, utilising the appropriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander expertise for the thesis. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander co-supervisors could support the application of appropriate epistemologies, data collection and working with communities. Consideration could also be given to having Elders and community members as co-supervisors.
- a national register of supervisors be developed listing researchers with the necessary skills to supervise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research students
- better mechanisms be developed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to provide feedback on support and supervision, such as student surveys and exit statements
- a national research supervision award be created to acknowledge outstanding research supervisors of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research students.
The Panel believes it is critical that attention be given to supervision to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students receive the support they need to produce high-quality research that is able—should they choose—to engage energetically with Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. Supervisors also need to be provided with better models to embrace their role. This is particularly important as the vast majority of supervisors are non-Indigenous (Trudgett 2011, pp. 391–2).
Good practice models should be disseminated nationally, for example, through a national project on good practice supervision or through AIATSIS providing a role in supporting good practice for universities. The Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council could also initiate an annual award for supervision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students. ...
From: Final Report of the "Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People", Professor Larissa Behrendt, Professor Steven Larkin, Mr Robert Griew and Ms Patricia Kelly, July 2012
Saturday, September 15, 2012
Supervision of Indigenous Higher Degree Students
The Final Report of the "Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People" was released 14 April 2012 by the Australian Government. The report makes 35 recommendations, including on supervision of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students. The “hands-on” approach and appreciation of cultural differences (particularly a deference to authority) are also relevant for other groups of students.