The paper comments
The NSW Ombudsman has jurisdiction over all public universities in NSW – ten universities in all. We receive and investigate complaints from students about administrative actions relating to their enrolment, course progress, supervision and termination of their studies. At the Ombudsman’s office, we have worked with universities to develop tailored guidance for dealing with the unique issues that can arise in university complaints. An important stage in this work was in 2015 when we published, together with other Australian Ombudsman offices, Complaint Handling at Universities: Australasian Best Practice Guidelines. As the foreword to those guidelines observed about university complaints, ‘Mishandled complaints have a high potential cost, both financially and in damage to reputations’. For several years, we have been looking into complaints that relate to postgraduate supervision in NSW universities. We have received a steady number of these complaints and they are often complex and time consuming to examine. They are also often accentuated by career and personal concerns reflected in the breakdown of research relationships between postgraduate students and supervisors.
In January 2016, we released a draft discussion paper to university complaint handlers in NSW. There was strong interest in the topic, with submissions from universities and discussions between Ombudsman and university staff and with representatives from postgraduate student organisations.
We have now decided to take the issue a step further by publishing a revised discussion paper that will be made more widely available on our website. This revised paper builds on the consultation that has occurred to date. It includes a number of We invite submissions or comments from any interested parties by 31 January 2018 particularly examples of initiatives that have successfully resolved conflicts in postgraduate supervision. We will then decide if further action is needed to develop best practice guidelines or share practical examples and ideas among universities. ....
This project arose from the steady number of complaints the NSW Ombudsman has received over many years about postgraduate supervision in NSW universities. These complaints can be complex and take time and resources to examine. They often also have a personal aspect which makes them especially challenging to deal with.
In January 2016, we published a draft discussion paper for university complaint handlers and received many helpful submissions in reply. We also reviewed relevant university policies, surveyed all NSW universities, conducted follow-up interviews with university staff at each institution, and spoke with representatives of several postgraduate student organisations. This current discussion paper has resulted from those conversations and the strong interest that we have encountered on this topic.
Universities in NSW have told us that complaints by postgraduate students are not overall more frequent than other kinds of student complaints. Allegations of academic or non-academic misconduct in postgraduate supervision are not sustained after investigation any more often than other student allegations. However, universities generally recognise that there is a potential for postgraduate complaints to be complex and bitterly-contested and significant resources can be spent in dealing with them.
This discussion paper aims to help all those involved share what they feel to be best practice in complaint handling in this field. This will hopefully facilitate a constructive exchange of ideas and experience. There is no implicit suggestion in this project that universities have dealt poorly with these matters in the past, or that some universities have performed poorly compared to others. A number of universities have commented that the conversations leading to this discussion paper have been beneficial. For example, one university found that useful information it had published about dealing with conflicts between supervisors and students on a FAQ page on its website appeared only in the ‘for supervisors’ version of the page.
Universities have also moved of their own accord to address issues in response to the questions raised in our survey and follow-up interviews with interested parties. For example, some universities found that their policies were not as clear as they could be and have undertaken to revise them.The paper comments that ' Difficulties and conflicts will always arise between postgraduate students and supervisors. The sensible path forward is therefore to develop a structured framework that acknowledges this possibility and implements steps to avoid or deal with it'. It accordingly suggests ten strategies for inclusion in such a structured framework:
1. Universities should prepare accessible written guidelines for students and supervisors on dealing with conflicts and disputes – including counselling, appointing a new supervisor, and referring disputes for conciliation. These guidelines should advise students and supervisors that problems can arise in all supervisory relationships that are not the fault of either party.
2. Universities should consider developing or continuing a structured training program for supervisors on the skills of supervision. This training should contain practical advice on dealing with problems in the supervisory relationship, such as ‘having difficult conversations’.
3. Members of supervisory panels should be advised when they start their role to take note of signs of deterioration in supervisory relationships, and report these to the conflict resolution officer in postgraduate administration or the ‘mentor’ if one has been appointed to the panel.
4. Students and supervisors should be encouraged to keep a written record of their supervisory arrangements, expectations and mutual responsibilities. Both could be encouraged to co-sign any important records.
5. Universities should implement a procedure whereby a student, after their annual performance review, can submit a confidential report on perceived problems in their supervisory relationship.
6. Universities should nominate a designated officer – a ‘go-to’ person – that a student or supervisor can speak to if they are experiencing significant difficulties in a supervisory relationship. This designated officer (or panel of officers) could be located or administered by the central university office responsible for postgraduate administration. They could be given a recognisable title, such as ‘conflict resolution officer’.
7. A designated student ‘mentor’ could be appointed to the supervisory panel for each student who has changed their principal supervisor more than once – with the exception of changes arising from matters such as the death, illness, resignation or retirement of a supervisor. The mentor’s role would be to monitor the general supervisory relationship, independent of the substance of the research project. It should also be understood that the appointment of a mentor is not seen as a negative or punitive response to the changes in supervisory arrangements. Universities could also consider, on an individual basis, whether a ‘mentor’ should be appointed to a supervisory panel in other special circumstances. For example, if the principal supervisor is undertaking supervision for the first time – or the principal supervisor was involved previously in a sustained formal grievance process or was the subject of serious allegations of bullying or harassment. Including the mentor on the supervisory panel should be seen as a safeguard measure to minimise potential problems and provide independent feedback to the supervisors – not as a performance management measure that reflects on the supervisor’s suitability.
8. Universities should consider establishing a panel of internal university mediators, conciliators or trained dispute-resolution specialists who are available – with the consent of the parties – to deal with unresolved conflicts between students and supervisors.
9. Universities should consider implementing a structured program for contacting students by email at designated stages of a research project, and inviting them to raise or discuss on a confidential basis any issues they may be experiencing with their supervision. The following is suggested text to include in the email:
The university recognises that postgraduate study can be stressful. The stress will be greater if you feel you have an unsatisfactory academic relationship with your supervisor. You may raise any concerns you have by replying to this email. Other options and procedures for dealing with problems you may be facing with your supervisor are outlined in the university’s guidance on postgraduate supervision, which is available at the following link: [a link to information on the university’s dispute–resolution or conciliation process]. If you believe your supervisor is acting improperly or unethically, you have the right to submit a formal grievance. The procedure for doing this is outlined in the university’s guidance on postgraduate supervision. The university will receive any concerns you raise on a confidential basis. However, it may be necessary to discuss an issue with your supervisor or members of the supervisory panel if we are going to further investigate your complaint. We will discuss this with you before contacting your supervisor.
10. Students should be made aware – both in their induction material and through other accessible policies or guidance material – of the independent complaint and appeal mechanisms that are available to them. This includes the right to complain to the NSW Ombudsman, the Australian Research Integrity Committee, The Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and the Independent Commission Against Corruption – as well as professional bodies, schools or boards that regulate careers in certain occupations.