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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.IQ