General Secretary Visits Sweden

On December 11th-12th, Tim Brown flew over to Stockholm to speak at a seminar run by Swedens Council for the Renewal of Higher Education (CRHE) as well as Prof Howard Green, Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education. A number of Universities and consortia in Sweden have been running programmes to train research student supervisors between 2001 and 2003 and this event was an opportunity for appraisal of the training programmes and sharing of ideas. All of the events were government funded and it was important to evaluate the programmes to see if they have successful outcomes.

All training programs were written up as case studies where both Tim Brown and Howard Green wrote short commentaries of the events to be discussed during the event. To begin with, there was an opening of the event by Prof Lars Haikola, Chair of the CRHE to introduce the project and the need to spread ideas preventing the re-inventing of the wheel.

A total of nine case studies were presented, which included examples of actual training courses, where as others were more about forums to discuss progress where as others were based on consortia between different institutions and even industry. There were some interesting examples in some case studies where both students and supervisors discuss their difficulties within a form so that both sides can learn from difficulties they experience and find ways of overcoming them. This was conducted in small groups of students and supervisors so issues that were common to many students and supervisors could be identified. One noticeable feature about research degrees in Sweden compared to the UK is that there is no code of practise for research degrees and there are no national level guidelines in particular that will set regulations on how to supervise. Good supervision therefore appears to be found more at institutional level and good practise is learnt from others who have experience.

Following this a presentation was given by Howard Green speaking on developing supervisor training programmes in the UK. In Howards Presentation, the UKs current consultation on improving standards in research degree programmes was outlined and how within that structured supervisor training is planned. Another important point raised by Howard was the possible motives by some institutions to introduce training as a way of avoiding litigation or to comply with pressure from funding bodies. A recent case published in the Times Higher Education Supplement was noted where a research student was able to claim damages for poor supervision by which institutions will raise concerns. Howards reasoning for more structured supervisor training included improved internal quality and better completion rates from research students. The roles, responsibilities and models of supervisor training were then covered by Howard, which will vary according to the size and subject range in institutions.

Following this Tim Brown took the floor to speak from the student perspective. It is customary in Sweden that whenever a case is brought across from the staff perspective that a student is also invited to speak on the same subject to give their perspective. Unlike the UK, the CRHE also appoints student representatives to play an active role in the council, which was interesting to learn about. Tims approach opened up with explaining some of the typical scenarios he saw happening with individual research students he had been consulted by when they had faced breakdown with supervisors, unsuccessful viva examinations and difficult supervisors not doing their job properly. Following this Tim then considered why supervisors should be trained in terms of how they would have better output. Tim agreed that it should be in terms of developing the student as well as consistency in supervision, conveying expertise and building up suitable relationships.

The postgraduates expectations were then raised in terms of NPCs response to the Improving Standards in Research Degree Programmes consultation with the inclusion of Refresher courses for Old Dogs as the Swedish call more experienced academics. Also the need for supervisory teams with mentoring of new supervisors was noted and suggested the possibility of review methods where both the student and supervisor could review their own progress.

Following lunch, there was a discussion session What our critical friends have to say, where both Tim Brown and Howard Green were on a panel with two doctoral student representatives, Cecilia Gagne and Monika Appel. There was some discussion over whether instruction of regulations in doctoral programmes was the most important issue to instruct supervisors on. There was some argument about this, however, that learning the regulations from cover to cover would not relate to how the regulations were applied. A counter argument was that the value of regulations should be identified with so as to promote good academic practise by using the regulations constructively. Other important points raised were noting the ethical dimensions to research and pedagogy in training researchers.

There was much discussion as to how to go about encouraging Old Dogs to take part in training. They get their name due to the fact that an older dog is always reluctant to sit and listen. Running a training programme for experienced academics was considered not appealing and that a different approach should be made, where by there was training or even seminars in academic leadership so they would speak better to their audience.

The second day had many discussion groups on various issues. Tim attended a group that discussed how to keep the momentum up by sustaining supervisor training courses. This was of particular concern in smaller institutions, which were under resourced. Possibilities of consortia were considered in this regard with a network of older and younger supervisors available. Another concern was the fact that not all academics in Sweden were Swedish speaking, so they require instruction in English. Therefore there were concerns regarding the supply of English speaking instructors. Further to this, there was need to increase contacts within certain disciplines and also assess the impact of why training is necessary and identifying possible outputs.