PhD supervision: quality, frequency & academic judgment

An article in this week’s Times Higher about the quality of PhD supervision got me thinking about how many of the cases institutions refer to us seem to hinge on this particular issue and in particular how it interrelates with questions of academic judgment.
  • The suitability of the supervisor
A number of cases have involved the suitability particularly of replacement supervisors when the original one can no longer continue to act either through incapacity, transfer to another institution or relationship breakdown with the supervisee. In some cases this has left the institution with no-one with expertise in the field in question. The courts have previously resisted attempts by students to challenge the competence and suitability of examiners as being matters of academic judgment and therefore not justiciable. Although not expressly tested, one can reasonably safely assume they would want to apply the same approach to the competence and suitability of supervisors. What however, will be the court’s response if there is clear evidence that a proposed supervisor lacks expertise in the field? Some of the cases I’ve seen have highlighted the importance of contingency plans where there are only a small number of people within the institution capable of supervising a particular piece of research.
  • The quality and frequency of supervision sessions
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of research at this level, there is no uniform approach as to the nature, type or frequency of supervision sessions. Determining the degree of supervision a particular student needs is another exercise of academic judgment and therefore should, under the court’s general approach, be immune from legal review. This is fine as long as the student is progressing satisfactorily. However, it is very difficult to defend a complaint or claim by a student who has failed when the only contemporaneous evidence of supervisory input is a handful of barely completed reports that seem to suggest all is well. Managing a failing student’s expectations and documenting concerns are both vital to prevent complaints further down the line but do supervisors need more support and encouragement to know how best to communicate this to students?
  • The quality of supervisory advice
When a student submits his or her thesis for examination, it is on the basis that the supervisor has advised that the work is ready for submission. That is an example par excellence of the exercise of academic judgment. What if the thesis is then failed outright by the external examiners or, as in one case we handled, is rejected on the basis that it was never a suitable topic for doctoral-level research in any event? Can both these positions be the defensible exercise of equally valid professional judgments? These are areas in which the law has to date been slow to intervene, but there are enough trends pushing higher education into the transactional, service-provider end of the market to question how long this laissez-faire approach by the courts will be allowed to continue.
  • An adequate remedy for poor supervision?
The Times Higher article makes the bold statement that “a substandard thesis is evidence of inadequate supervision”. Not everyone would necessarily agree with that analysis in all cases. However, there may be cases where the link is sufficiently clear. Many institutions treat concerns about poor supervision as a matter of complaint rather than a ground of appeal. The remedies available under the complaints procedure however may do little to achieve what a successful complainant wants, i.e. an opportunity for reassessment or resubmission. Failing students in effect want an academic decision on whether the inadequacies identified in their supervision affected their performance.
PhD supervision is an area where the boundaries between academic judgment and professional service can be difficult to identify. To date, the courts have been willing to reject challenges to the former and to entertain challenges to the latter, but the distinction may be scrutinised more carefully in the future.

Smita Jamdar
Partner and Head of Education
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
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E: smita.jamdar@sghmartineau.com
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