Cavalier attitudes lead to uncivil practices in vivas

Susan Bassnett wonders why PhD examining is still so amateurish and inconsistent in English universities

May 15, 2014

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

At a leading Russell Group institution, I asked if there would be a chair. The supervisor replied: ‘Thank goodness we don’t bother with that QAA stuff here’

PhD examining has increased phenomenally in recent years, mostly because of the huge rise in student numbers.

As an examiner, I average half a dozen vivas a year: roughly a thesis every two months. Some of these are excellent, others a long way below, but all in different ways reflect years of work on the part of the student. Now, though, I have started to have doubts about agreeing to examine at English universities, because the variations in examining practice are so great that you can never be sure what to expect – and nobody seems to want to change their way of doing things.

Ten years ago, I sat on a national committee endeavouring to draw up a Quality Assurance Agency code of practice for the supervision and examining of PhDs. One of the key areas we focused on was the viva: the final hurdle for doctoral candidates and, hence, the source of a lot of anxiety and a not insubstantial number of complaints when things go wrong.

We were critical of the practice of holding a viva behind closed doors, where all too often the candidate and two examiners are the only people privy to what goes on. We recommended that – as was already happening in some UK and Irish institutions – a senior academic should chair the viva, ensuring that an independent witness is present throughout.

It seems we might as well not have bothered. A series of articles in Times Higher Education (such as “Whim and rigour”, 25 April 2013) have suggested that PhD examining remains dire across the UK, and that impression is borne out by my own recent experience.

Over the past 12 months I have examined six PhDs. Two, thankfully, were in Ireland where one can be assured of a well-organised procedure that mirrors our best practice guidelines, with the independent chair often being a dean or head of department, and the supervisor also permitted to be present. Another viva was in Norway, where the candidate defends the thesis in public and gives a lecture into the bargain. The three students I examined in England were all good, in different ways, but the experience of examining them was not.

In the case of University A (not in the Russell Group), the organisation of accommodation and travel was done by a highly efficient and charming secretary. The viva, chaired by a senior colleague, took place in the internal examiner’s pleasant study and was followed by a reception in the common room, again organised by the secretary.

There was also a very efficient secretary at University B (a Russell Group member), although the reception afterwards was organised by the supervisor, who was emphatically not allowed to be present at the viva. That viva (a resit) was chaired, but by a newly appointed junior academic so uncertain of what she was meant to be doing that both examiners had to reassure her and offer assistance. When I enquired afterwards about why she had been dropped into a potentially difficult situation, I was told that no senior academic wanted to “waste their time chairing a viva”.

I was told the same at University C (a leading Russell Group institution), where the organisation was left entirely to the supervisor. On the day of the viva, held in a large, impersonal seminar room, there was no sign of any living being in the departmental corridor apart from myself and the other examiner, also an external. After a long wait, during which we set off on an unsuccessful search for coffee, the supervisor appeared with a nervous overseas student. On being asked about the chair, she replied: “Thank goodness we don’t bother with that QAA stuff here.” The other external and I did wonder how the university manages to get away with such a cavalier attitude when returning documentation for academic audit.

Thankfully, the viva went well. After it was over, we took the student out for lunch since if we had not done so, presumably he would have been left to wander off on his own down the deserted corridors in search of a fellow human being with whom to celebrate.

Given that students sacrifice a great deal in the pursuit of a PhD and UK universities are all too keen to attract such high fee-paying international students, why is PhD examining still so amateurish and inconsistent? I have even encountered one (Russell Group) university where I was not asked about my qualifications to examine or even whether I was actually still employed in a university. For all anyone knew, I could have never read a PhD before and the doubt remains that if the question is not asked, might there indeed be examiners who don’t have a clue about PhD standards?

Surely the least a university can do for a PhD student is to ensure that the viva is taken seriously and proper procedures are put in place to ensure fairness and make that last stop before the end of the doctoral road as stress-free as possible. But how many more decades will it be before that message finally sinks in?

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Reader's comments (3)

One way to avoid this altogether is to stop having vivas altogether! what purpose does the viva serve after a PhD has been examined by an internal and two external examiners which in the case of some top South African universities must be from overseas? From the description above it would seem only to put the student under further and, in my view, unnecessary stress and to offer the viva participants the opportunity to enjoy a reception or luncheon invitation with the host University! A waste of time and energy and not without emotional and often financial costs to the candidate. No wonder senior academics shy away from it
This article was a petty complaint about hospitality at one university. It did not refer to the candidate's experience, the intellectual depth of the discussion in the viva, the viva as an evaluative instrument, or anything of any substance. A complete waste of time.
up 10th class results 2014

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