Tara Brabazon: International standard-bearers

In a networked world, there is no excuse to continue to examine British theses by British academics only, argues Tara Brabazon

June 3, 2009

One of the many advantages of being married to an academic is that debates extend beyond the conventional workday and into evenings, the following week and for years. Steve and I have two particular topics that we recycle. The relevance of teaching qualifications for university academics is one. He believes that they are not necessary, but I am wearing him down. The other discussion that recurs is the importance of a viva in the doctoral process. On this topic, I am more open to negotiation. Let me explain.

I am Australian, which means that neocolonialism, post-colonialism and republicanism are as constant in my consciousness as a WAG’s attachment to spray-on tan and designer labels. Through much of the academic history of Australia, there has been the subtle but continual assumption that no matter how great the accolade or award, our contribution will never be as significant as an achievement in “the real academy”, which invariably describes a few universities in the UK and the US and occasionally extends to the University of British Columbia and McGill University in Canada.

Those of us who were born and lived outside such intellectual geography gained some fortunate by-products from this neocolonialism. One involves doctoral examinations. Much to the tittering of older British academics, the Australian system rarely invokes the viva. They are permissible on request by examiners and part of the regulations in many universities. However the emphasis for Australian candidature management is different. The goal is to exam the thesis, not the candidate. The focus is on the research and content, not the researcher and form.

This distinction between examination processes unsettles many British scholars because the viva holds an almost sacramental role in the doctoral Mass. The idea that Australian doctoral theses do not involve this “event” as a matter of course creates an implicit assumption that these qualifications are not of comparable standard.

From my perspective as someone who has lived, worked, supervised and examined in both systems, a difference of approach does not signify a distinction in quality. Indeed, the overbearing attention to the oral examination seems to me like the woman who is so focused on the wedding that she forgets about the marriage after “her big day”. The Australian system assesses three years of research and how it has been configured, compressed and shaped into a work of scholarship. There is no “big day”. Personality, physical appearance and verbal dexterity are not relevant to the process.

One cause for this different system of examination in Australia has its origins in neocolonial consciousness. The assumption that Australian academics would not be good enough to assess their own theses meant that the scripts were sent to “international” markers because it was not practical to bring scholars to antipodal campuses. Most universities did – and many still do – use three examiners, all of whom are external to the awarding university. While at least one “international” (non-Australian) examiner must be used, very often all three are sourced from outside the country. When I organise Australian examinations, I select the best examiners in the world and – if possible – ensure that each is resident in a different nation. In this way, we can mobilise the international academy in its best sense. There is something productive and exhilarating about selecting three professors who may never have met and may never meet, but are unified in their independent assessment of a doctoral thesis.

The cost of this colonial ideology was the loss of a real-time oral examination. But the benefit, ironically, is that Australian theses may be evaluated by the three best examiners in the world. National borders do not limit the assessment. Instead, the topic determines the examiners on the basis of expertise.

There is no doubt that the oral examination maintains important functions. First, it ensures that the person named on the cover of the thesis wrote the document. The second rationale is more controversial: an assurance that the writer of the thesis is verbally able to “mount a defence”. For scholars who have English as a second language or who are shy, this “advantage” is more ambiguous. Should a fine researcher be blocked from attaining a qualification because he or she is frightened of speaking in public or may lack verbal skills?

This is not an abstract question for me. I have supervised 28 PhD students, and one of them was/is shy. She experienced a panic attack before collecting her first-class honours degree. But because of the nature of the Australian system, she finished the thesis, passed through three examiners’ evaluations and attained her doctorate. She is currently the researcher for a non-governmental agency specialising in indigenous rights and multicultural affairs. There is little chance that she could have attained a PhD through the British system. She would not have attempted it. But she has already given much to policymaking through her research expertise. The question for my British colleagues to ponder is what happens to such a person who could – with dedication – produce a doctorate but is too reticent to defend it?

The third justification for an oral examination has been the most useful since my arrival in the UK. If serious corrections must be made, the viva can determine whether the candidate has enough ability to make these changes. If a thesis is substandard, examiners must decide either to fail it outright or to pass it with the need for major corrections. The next version must pass through another examination. In this case, the viva can confirm if candidates have sufficient expertise to make the changes asked of them. In this context, examiners fulfil the role of surrogate supervisors for 120 minutes.

Having noted these advantages, I can point out that there are also costs in using the viva as a core assessment instrument. There is a focus not only on the oral examination, but an under-theorised commitment to the use of only two examiners, one “external” (to the university, but rarely to the country) and the other “internal”. The only exception to this regulation is for candidates employed by the awarding institution. It is the status of the internal examiner that most interests – and disturbs – me. Many universities insist on at least two supervisors for each thesis. So the best-case scenario is that the internal examiner is the third-best expert on a particular topic in a university. In those institutions that insist that the internal examiner come from another school or faculty, the internal examiner role is filled by the third-best expert in the remaining faculties of that university.

In terms of intellectual expertise, what could the “third best” contribute to the process? One answer I have often heard is that the internal is present only to ensure that institutional protocols are enacted. That may be a legitimate response, except it means that – in reality – a doctoral thesis is being examined by one person. All of us conversant with PhD processes know that every now and again – despite the best planning and career checks we can muster – an examiner arrives who has not taken his or her happy pills in the morning. We all know of cases when an examiner has been harbouring a decade-long (and often undisclosed) dispute with the supervisor. The anger in the questions has nothing to do with the student. The candidate is a punchbag for some bizarre disagreement that occurred at a conference in 1973 or through an unfavourable book review in a now-closed journal. I have seen examiners who have undergone political or religious conversion between the organisation of the examination and the event itself. They arrive to do battle with their former selves, rather than evaluating the doctoral research.

Then there is the other – almost more worrying – problem. I observed a viva where an examiner knew the student, the supervisor and the administrators. With some probing, it emerged that he was a former postgraduate of the supervisor. Another systemic problem is the use of a roster of a few examiners who are summoned as frequently as university regulations permit: often once every two years. A “safe pair of hands” does not bode well for an independent and transparent procedure. Such revolving-door examiners would not be too damaging if there were another external assessor who could check and question the decisions and procedures.

The question I ask of my British colleagues is how often in their supervisory careers have they appointed non-British academics to mark British doctorates? Certainly, “foreigners” are used, and these exceptions are important to mention. But it is also necessary to log how rare non-British examiners are in the process, particularly when compared with many European universities that utilise a wide range of academic experts.

This is an example to follow. One of the gifts of multiculturalism is that it can help us understand differences and be open to other systems and structures. I have enjoyed – and learnt so much – from living, working, teaching and writing in three countries. I see the attributes of the British systems of supervision and examination. I also see the gifts and advantages of the Australian and New Zealand systems. All academic procedures have flaws and weaknesses. But if there is a lesson to be learnt from former colonies, it is that opening the examination of doctorates to truly international examiners, rather a colleague met at a conference and within reach of a train line, adds independence and transparency.

I realised the irony of this situation before one oral examination, waiting for the student to be brought into the room. On one wall was a fully functional – and dormant – videoconferencing system. This technology could enable scholars from all over the world to examine a thesis in real time without the waste of resources caused by air travel. There is no excuse to continue to examine British theses by British academics when the world experts in particular topics may be located elsewhere, but within reach of a videoconferencing suite.

If the oral examination is important, the reasons for that importance should be specified. If it is to ensure that only the loquacious obtain a doctorate, then it can serve that purpose with non-specialist examiners. But if the aim is to evaluate the content and research protocols at the highest level, then the best examiners in the world – rather than the nation – should be used.

In the Australian context, the “tyranny of distance”, to poach that old book title from Geoffrey Blainey, is no longer an excuse for a lack of an oral examination. The advantage of the viva – a confirmation that the named scholar actually wrote the doctorate – is important to recognise. But similarly, the gift of neocolonialism is the realisation that the best examiners may be (and, let’s be honest, will be) located outside the home campus. This should be an example for other, self-validating nations. Even the staunchest member of the UK Independence Party or the British National Party would not suggest that all the best minds in the world are housed within the geographical perimeter of the UK. Well, perhaps they would.

The question is one of international standards. These standards do not have to slip into standardisation. Instead, it is useful to ask for reflection and reassessment. As I was thinking about these different models of learning, supervising and examining in preparation for one of my student’s oral examinations, an email appeared in my inbox. The University of Newcastle in Australia is conducting a research project with the important if unsexy title of “Modelling and Validating an Approach to Maximise Consistency in Research Thesis Examination”. As I had completed some recent examinations in Australia, I was asked to participate in their project. I filled in the survey but kept thinking of the value such a study could offer if it were conducted throughout the international academy. The results would be fascinating, asking all of us – whatever our geographical location – how we “maximise consistency” in doctoral examinations. The first stage in such a project must be to take multicultural education seriously, to understand cultural difference, rather than being judgmental of it. Anything less risks a toxic form of intellectual xenophobia, where outsiders have little to offer but cheap labour, while citizen-scholars never have to justify or question their history, regulations or standards. Our aspiration must be a marriage not of academic convenience, but of consciousness.

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