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Colbran, S; Tynan, B --- "Australian Law Postgraduate Network" [2007] LegEdDig 33; (2007) 15(2) Legal Education Digest 41

Australian Law Postgraduate Network

S Colbran & B Tynan

[2007] LegEdDig 33; (2007) 15(2) Legal Education Digest 41

15 Legal Educ Rev 1 & 2, 2006 pp 35–53

The Australian Law Postgraduate Network (ALPN) in part draws together the combined expertise of law schools for the benefit of enhancing the postgraduate research experience of students and their supervisors alike. The ALPN responds to the call from national policy and priorities in the research arena for improved research practice and direction. In the White Paper titled ‘Knowledge and Innovation: A Policy Statement on Research and Research Training’, the Commonwealth Government outlined the problems that exist in research training programmes. These problems include: (1) Research programmes that are too narrow, too specialised and too theoretical, leading to graduates whose communication, interpersonal and leadership skills require further development; (2) A research training environment associated with poor supervision, inadequate levels of departmental support and limited access to infrastructure; (3) A mismatch between the research priorities of the institution and the interests of the students; (4) Limited opportunities for students to gain experience in appropriate research environments which tends to promulgate a cultural gap between academic researchers and staff in industry; and (5) High attrition rates and slow rates of completion for students.

The challenge observed for potential supervisors of law postgraduate degrees is in the consideration and development of ways in which to support students to move towards successful completion. In addition, the desire to produce graduates that display desirable graduate attributes, such as the ability to be independent and responsible learners, could be jeopardised by overly prescriptive management systems as the law education sector responds to internal and external policy structures and demands. The initiative described here goes in some part to meet this challenge and seeks to promote a collaborative approach which could benefit students and their supervisors alike. This paper aims to provide background on the issues currently of concern for postgraduate law students and their supervisors, describe various supervisory models, and detail an initiative that may respond to these issues.

There are three main types of Australian law postgraduate research degrees: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD), and Master of Laws by research (LLM). All of these qualifications require significant supervised research culminating in a thesis from 50,000 to 100,000 words. The Department of Education Science and Training released 2004 student load data that revealed only 393 Equivalent Full-Time Student Unit (EFTSU) of students were studying a Doctorate by research, 25 EFTSU were studying a Doctorate by coursework and 81 ETFSU were studying a Masters by research. By way of comparison, 4,142 EFTSU were studying a Master’s by coursework degree. Current levels of enrolment and the even lower completion rates are the result of a complex range of issues which could result in postgraduate studies in law continuing to be a rare commodity. The initiative promoted by the ALPN network begins to address these issues. The ALPN, however, may not be enough to solve all these issues. The financial rewards of practice continues to be a threat to the attractiveness of further legal education and to becoming a legal academic. Postgraduate research degrees in law, in many instances, also suffer from limited programme information and low student enrolments. There is a paucity of discipline-relevant supervisory training and practice. Supervisory staff often have limited methodological experience (particularly in social science research methodologies). There are also problems with the 1:1 master/apprentice supervisory model, which is broadly adopted across the sector.

Due to competitive institutional and sector-wide higher education structures, potential candidates cannot take advantage of expert supervisors across law schools. They are limited to what each individual law school has to offer from internal staff and adjunct staff.

By providing candidates with more thorough and relevant information upon which they can ascertain the suitability of supervisors in chosen areas, their location, qualifications, and capacity to supervise, students’ choices may well be better informed and risk of failure mitigated.

If this information were available, postgraduate students could begin to make informed and confident choices, universities could better position their programmes and resulting differentiation may lead to better outcomes and less risk for students, supervisors and respective institutions.

While some law schools may attempt supervisory training, it is generally true to say that within the law discipline there is inadequate definition of the roles of supervisors and candidates, and what the supervision entails. The discipline has also failed to provide adequate staff training for addressing underdeveloped expertise in social science research methodologies and a lack of available statistical and other methodological advisory services. The ALPN network aims to open the discourse and achieve some consensus in approaching these issues.

Postgraduate law students suffer from intellectual isolation and fragmentation by being spread across many law schools in low concentrations.

By promoting interactions between law postgraduate research students and between students and expert supervisors across universities, the ALPN could facilitate intellectual collaboration and the foundation of future research networks, thus creating a solid community of practice.

Problems associated with finding suitably capable and qualified supervisors severely restrict the ability of the discipline to supervise and graduate higher degree students. The problem is widespread throughout law schools, particularly in smaller law schools and in regional areas of Australia.

Whilst it is reasonable to assume that supervisors will have qualifications at least at the level the student is attempting, the reality is that many supervisors undertake supervision on an ‘or equivalence’ basis. The exact nature of ‘or equivalence’ is typically determined by Research Doctoral Committees on recommendation of the Head of School. There are no uniform national standards.

This approach has several flaws. There is an obvious conflict of interest. Law schools derive financial benefit from increased higher degree research completions.

The risk of failing to determine who is an appropriate supervisor is that if the candidate fails, there may be liability risks for the university for failure to provide adequate supervisory arrangements. To date no such law suits have arisen.

An alternative approach, as suggested by the ALPN, would be to create a national register of PhD supervisors recognised by their peers. A code of practice could be developed to govern supervision arrangements and ongoing supervisory training requirements. The code could also outline guidelines for ‘or equivalence’ in the discipline and remove the ambiguity that currently exists.

In the future there may be developed recognised panels of PhD examiners in selected areas — final examiners from which are selected at random.

Doctoral supervision in the discipline of law in Australia has typically followed a 1:1 master/apprentice model of a single supervisor, or less commonly a co-supervisory model involving two or three supervisors within or associated with the one university. The model is dictated by individual university rules without reference to any analysis of the needs of the discipline of law.

Postgraduate research degrees are perceived increasingly as core business and it is assumed that once an academic obtains a postgraduate research degree that they are automatically in a position to supervise without further experience and ongoing training. The scenario does not bode well for the international standing of Australian research degrees.

A common view amongst supervisors of law higher degrees is that while recently graduated students may have legal research skills, they lack skills in critical and analytical thinking, knowledge of alternative research methodologies, project design management and evaluation, self-management, time management, and writing skills. The difficulty lies in the failure of the discipline to adequately train students and supervisors in these skills — the assumption being that such skills are developed by osmosis over time.

Another major difficulty with this model is the limited interaction between students and a sense of isolation often expressed by students. Doctoral students are usually dealt with individually in the context of 1:1 meetings, except for university level workshops or occasional general seminars on postgraduate supervision.

The role of the second supervisor varies. Often the second supervisor has had no direct experience of supervising and is placed in the position so as to be mentored. This is dependent on the willingness of the second supervisor to attend meetings, read thesis drafts, and engage in the process. It also depends on whether the principal supervisor allows the second supervisor a role within the relationship and the ability of the principal supervisor to act as a mentor.

The ALPN project is a radical departure from the above approaches in that it advocates extending co-supervisory arrangements across experienced supervisors at different universities. The ALPN also involves formal training of supervisors and inbuilt support for both higher degree research students and their supervisors.

The construction of co-supervisory approaches could be broadened to include situations of a single principal supervisor (with or without a co-supervisor) supervising multiple students in a group situation as a collaborative network. A collaborative network approach to supervision offers opportunities for empowerment and self-growth from all concerned.

There is no doubt traditional approaches to supervision can be successfully supplemented by reciprocal peer support.

In May 2006, the Carrick Institute of Higher Education and Learning provided a Leadership for Excellence in Teaching and Learning grant in the sum of $192,000 to help address the issues discussed above. The grant application to create the Australian Law Postgraduate Network (ALPN) emerged after consultations with Deans at all Australian law schools via the Council of Australian Law Deans (CALD).

The ALPN promotes collaboration and leadership in supervision across law schools, collaboration between supervisors and between students at various institutions undertaking postgraduate research degrees.

In addition, the ALPN demonstrates leadership in and between four levels: Universities, the Council of Australian Law Deans (CALD), Associate Deans (Research) or equivalents, and networking and support amongst user groups including higher degree research students and supervisors. The tiered approach detailed enables several levels of leadership to build upon one another for the greater benefit of the discipline and all those involved within it.

In this project, law schools will pool resources to: (1) Hire statistical and methodological advisors; (2) Compile a joint list of qualified supervisors in stated areas; (3) Assist students in developing research topics; (4) Break down the isolation of higher degree research students in law, particularly PhD and SJD students; (5) Supervise across institutions; (6) Create supervisory training programs for this discipline; (7) Broaden the methodological basis of the discipline; (8) Engage in internet-based collaborative supervision; (9) Improve higher degree by research outcomes by enabling candidates to access qualified experts across universities; (10) Create a national postgraduate Law Research Students’ Conference; and (11) Present Australian law schools as united in the international postgraduate research degree market.

The aims are stated succinctly as: (1) To promote a culture of collaboration across the law education sector in Australia; (2) To disseminate information about Australian Law Postgraduate Research; (3) To initiate a National Postgraduate Law Research and Supervision Conference; and (4) To encourage a national and international research culture amongst postgraduate research students and their supervisors.

While the project will be coordinated by the University of New England Law School and the UNE Teaching and Learning Centre, it is a comprehensive collaboration across the law schools of Australia. An annual report will be submitted to the participating law schools updating progress on the project. Evaluation will also be conducted independently of the project. As this is a large-scale project, a reference group consisting of the Associate Deans Research or equivalents of each participating law school will be sought to assist in ensuring the project meets milestones, provides accurate interpretations, and ensures valid evaluation techniques are used for collecting, analysing and reporting data.

The ALPN will be developed in two phases. Phase One involves development of a legal postgraduate website including: (1) Detailed information assisting higher degree research students in developing thesis proposals; (2) A searchable database of supervisor details and abstracts on all law and law-related research theses completed in Australia; (3) A listing of grants and scholarships available to higher degree research students in law in Australia; (4) A guide to formulating a thesis proposal in law; (5) Extensive links to categorised methodological resources; (6) A database of references to books and articles plus web links related to postgraduate research in law; and (7) A listing of international scholars visiting Australian law schools and their contact details.

Phase Two of the project brings stakeholders together from different law schools to work collaboratively to supervise higher degree research students. A further objective of Phase Two is to develop a specialist-training package for higher degree research supervisors in law. The package will be delivered via the Internet in combination with a CD-ROM or DVD.

The ALPN does not claim to be the only solution to discipline and broader sector concerns but is an attempt to bring together and create a broader community of practice for wider sector gain. While higher degree research revenue is not currently a major source of income for law schools (it may be in the future), higher degree graduands are a significant source of potential new academic staff, and significantly add to the prestige of an academic institution and the discipline as a whole.

No doubt there will be a degree of competition amongst law schools. This requires thoughtful consideration and cannot be ignored. The scheme will probably work best where one law school can fill a gap at another, no doubt with the financial sharing providing the incentive for an academic at one place to supervise, or assist in supervising, a student at another. But things might be different where two or more institutions with relevant expertise are competing for the same students. The ALPN represents a major victory for collaboration and networking amongst Australian law schools, which if successful could provide a model for other disciplines to consider.

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