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The Universal Academic Soldier

Heavy Workloads and Ambiguous Boundaries for Programme Academic Supervisors

«Vishvarupa: The Cosmic Form of Krishna», 1820 / Brooklyn Museum / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Higher education is not able to adapt to reality so quickly. To help universities keep pace with the world around them, in the mid-2010s, Russian universities instituted a new managerial role: the programme academic supervisor. This ‘universal soldier’ has many tasks: from curriculum quality oversight to managing employer partnerships. Dmitry Gergert and Dmitry Artemyev put together the first collective portrait of the Russian university programme academic supervisor and presented it in a report at the X International Russian Higher Education Conference (RHEC) held at HSE University.

A Universal Soldier

University programmes are often criticized for their lack of modernity and flexibility. They change more slowly than their various ‘clients’—both applicants and employers—would like. It is the programme academic supervisor’s job to promote change in all of a programme’s main areas: programme content, student progress, and relations with external stakeholders, such as employers and partner universities. The academic supervisor is the coordinator of all programme educational activities and the peacemaker in teacher-student conflicts. The academic supervisor’s range of duties is both extremely broad and ambiguously defined, the researchers say.

The only thing that is clear about the position is that it is:

 ‘a form of leadership that exists in the space between academic and managerial roles’;

 not a new position in the university hierarchy, but rather a compounded one;

 an additional load that comes with blurred boundaries of authority.

Therefore, it is possible that many academic supervisors act on the basis of their own interpretation of their role, the researchers suggest. After all, they also have their own priorities.

The ‘Introvert’ Approach

Programme supervisors prioritize tasks that they view as most urgent: programme curriculum development, teachers, and students. The remaining tasks related to the external environment (i.e., work related to meeting market demands and cultivating working relationships with employers and partner institutions) take secondary importance.

Priority number one for academic supervisors, write Gergert and Artemyev, is their programmes: ‘Almost 70% of bachelor’s programme academic supervisors and 40% of master’s programme academic supervisors spend about half their working time working with teachers, developing curricula, and providing information and methodological support for the programme.’ The next priority is students (taking up to 50% of their time).

As much as 80% of supervisors spend no more than 10% of their time marketing and promoting their programmes.

In other words, the academic supervisor is most focused on the internal processes of his or her programme—processes that are generally routine. Strategic concerns such as programme marketing and promotion end up taking the back burner.

In-depth interviews with academic supervisors partly clarify why work with teachers and curriculum development takes priority:

 Supervisors need to ‘synchronize programme content with employer demands’. This involves updating course offerings, substantially modifying them, and so on. Different forms of technology rapidly become obsolete, and business models change accordingly. How often do programmes need to be updated?

 Programme requirements have increased. They now include online courses. In addition, many courses now also need to be ‘internationalized’ and translated into English. This work also takes time.

 Finally, academic supervisors often do not have the competencies necessary to analyse the market, promote the programme, and work with external stakeholders (partners and companies). Therefore, they focus on tasks that are clear and familiar to them. This shortcoming can be attributed to the relative novelty of the programme supervisor role.

Not by One’s Own Powers Alone

The researchers learned how academic supervisors understand their areas of responsibility. It turned out that they delegate many managerial duties to other staff members (whose workloads therefore also increase). The supervisors themselves, rather, assign tasks and play the role of ‘integrator and communicator’.

‘I initiate and participate’. This was how half to more than 70% of respondents answered the question of what their responsibilities are in different tasks. These tasks include course list development, working with employers, identifying talented students, providing teacher oversight to ensure educational quality, and the development of a matrix of competencies.

Only about one fifth of the respondents reported completing different tasks themselves. The rest delegate responsibilities to other units or staff members.

Master’s programme supervisors perform duties independently somewhat more often insofar as master’s programmes are more insular (in terms of recruitment).

To whom do respondents most often delegate tasks?

60% of the undergraduate programme academic supervisors and 74% of their master’s programme counterparts rely on a stable core of colleagues who, in fact, serve as their partners in managing the programme. This management includes programme development, student recruitment, event planning, and more.

Too Many Hats

A significant difficulty for programme supervisors is the conflicting nature of their many roles. All tasks require very different social skills, which can be difficult to combine. The authors of the study, drawing upon the theory of competing values, considered eight roles associated with the position of academic supervisor:

1. Innovator. The supervisor is an inventor and agent of change. The academic supervisor modernises programmes to meet market requirements or changing standards.

2. Broker. The supervisor supports network interactions and attracts resources; he or she seeks new teachers, negotiates with partners.

3. Producer. The supervisor motivates the team (teachers and other employees) to succeed. In this way a programme is jointly created, course content and targeted skills are determined.

4. Director. The supervisor sets goals and defines roles - for example, in working with students when choosing an individual learning trajectory or during career guidance.

5. Coordinator. The supervisor maintains the programme structure, serves as a link between different parties in solving problems. He or she communicates the rules for course papers and theses and approves thesis topics.

6. Controller. The supervisor collects and disseminates information and evaluates performance. The supervisor must work with students regarding organizational matters such as topic changes, appeals, etc.

7. Mediator. The supervisor seeks consensus. He or she resolves conflicts with students, teachers, and parents.

8. Mentor. The supervisor mentors both teachers and students.

The academic leader is obliged to combine and perform conflicting tasks. For example, take the roles of producer and mediator. On the one hand, when resolving contentious issues, the supervisor takes the student’s side. On the other hand, in the capacity of producer, the supervisor must also protect the teacher.

An addition, the roles of controller and coordinator (in short, the obligation to serve as a ‘guardian’ of stability) are at odds with the role of innovator. At the same time, the supervisor is expected to rise above the routine and propose new solutions. It is up to the supervisor to strike a balance between these two responsibilities. Supervisors face this kind of conflict of interest in nearly every decision they have to make.

Where's the Money?

To accomplish tasks, resources are needed: from staff (infrastructure for working with applicants) to symbolic capital (partnerships with employers). And, of course, money is needed. But:

 Many educational programs do not have their own budgets, which could be managed by academic supervisors. Programme development is usually financed either by the faculty, or on a case by case basis by the university.

 This financial centralization does not allow supervisors to quickly acquire resources in support of programme promotion, teacher development, and other needs.

In sum, the researchers emphasize the need to identify the problem areas of each program. We also need regulatory documents that clearly prescribe the allocation of resources.

But the main thing that is needed is the institutionalization of the role of the academic supervisor and a clarification of the responsibilities that fall under his or her purview. When university programmes have their own ‘owners’, universities are able to respond more quickly to stakeholder requests, the researchers conclude.


Dmitry Gergert, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Economics, Management, and Business Informatics, HSE Campus in Perm
Dmitry Artemyev, Associate Professor of the School of Management, HSE Campus in Perm
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, November 21, 2019