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.