More than agency: the multiple mechanisms affecting postgraduate education
Puleng Motshoane (University of Johannesburg)
Sioux McKenna (Rhodes University)
It is generally accepted that the health of the postgraduate sector is an important factor in a nation’s
ability to contribute to innovation and knowledge production (ASSAf 2010, CHE & CREST 2009). The
knowledge economy is driven by high level skills and so it is unsurprising that the Department of
Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation, amongst other national bodies,
have introduced a range of initiatives to ensure growth in postgraduate education. The National
Research Foundation’s 2007 South African PhD Project seeks to double the number of doctoral
graduates by 2015, while the Department of Science and Technology wishes to increase doctoral
graduates five-fold by 2018 (Badat 2010). In order to remain competitive and to provide solutions
to a range of societal ills, we do indeed need to move beyond our current picture of low output and
high dropout to a postgraduate system that enjoys an increase in both quality and quantity.
The 2010 Academy of Science of South Africa’s (ASSAf) report on doctoral education indicated that
South Africa has just 26 doctorates per million of the population and thereby compares very
unfavourably with other countries; Brazil, for example, has 52 doctorates per million, United States
has 201 and Australia has 264. The ASSAf report argued that “for South Africa to be a serious
competitor in the global knowledge economy, and to achieve standards that are internationally
comparable, both the quality and quantity of PhDs need to be expanded dramatically” (ASSAf,
2010:21). The CHE & CREST report on postgraduate education in South Africa (2009) raised similar
concerns about low participation rates, at all levels of postgraduate study, and also demonstrated
that the time to completion was far greater than indicated in the national funding formula or the
notional hours of the national qualifications framework. Those who are able to successfully
complete Masters degrees do so in an average of 2.9 years and those who successfully complete
Doctoral degrees do so in an average of 4.7 years (CHE & CREST 2009:13).
This chapter argues that any serious attempt to develop postgraduate education at a national or
even institutional level needs to include an increased focus on the role played by issues such as
institutional ethos and research culture in supporting the supervision process. There is a need for
careful consideration by policy makers and institutional management of the ways in which structural
Published in 'Pushing boundaries in postgraduate
supervision' 2014 (Bitzer, E: Editor) Stellenbosch:
and cultural issues affect postgraduate supervision and how these can be fostered to improve the
postgraduate supervisory process. If the production of postgraduates is going to improve, it is
important to have a holistic picture of the various mechanisms affecting education at this level.
While the existing research offers a sophisticated picture of the roles played by supervisors and
postgraduate students, and provides invaluable advice to these key stakeholders, we believe the
literature insufficiently addresses the ways in which, amongst other issues, institutional
differentiation and institutional history are crucial structural issues in determining the supervision
context. Until research on the postgraduate sector shifts its boundaries to include in these issues in
the spotlight, we argue that ambitious national goals, such as the goal to increase doctoral output
to 5000 by 2030 (NPA 2011), will remain unrealized.
Any growth in the postgraduate sector needs to be underpinned by a framing of the context that
incorporates the roles and capacity development of supervisors and postgraduate students but also
goes beyond that. This chapter outlines one possible theoretical framework that we believe could
drive such broad based conceptualization of postgraduate education. It then very briefly raises just
two of the possible areas, institutional differentiation and history, that such an approach would
include in its gaze and suggests that these are amongst the many mechanisms currently constraining
Critical and Social Realism
Bhaskar’s Critical Realism (2008) contends that our experiences of the world are mediated through
our biased and incomplete conceptual understandings and we are therefore never completely
aware of the mechanisms from which events and our experiences thereof arise. The partial and
relative way in which we engage with the world often results in what Bhaskar refers to as the
‘epistemic fallacy’ (2008:36) whereby we conflate what we know of the world with what is. The
responsibility of research in the open system of the social world, where we cannot contain and
manipulate all the possible variables as we could in a laboratory, is to move beyond a relativistic
description of multiple interpretations and instead endeavour to offer an ‘explanatory critique’
(Bhaskar 2008) of what mechanisms might be causing a particular effect. Such an explanatory
critique may be incomplete and fallible, but “the arduous task of science [is] the production of the
knowledge of those enduring and continually active mechanisms of nature that produce the
phenomena of our world” (2008:37).
Taking this to an attempt to understand the constraints and enablements of postgraduate education
would entail a rich interrogation of the ways in which students and supervisors enact the pedagogy
and experience this educational process. But it would also include shifting the boundaries beyond
these multiple ways of being and asking questions about what the world must be like for
postgraduate education to happen in the way that it does.
What is it about our economic, social, political and cultural structures that enables postgraduate
education to exist as a phenomenon? Why are state and industrial structures demanding an increase
in postgraduate education and what specific forms of such education do these structures value?
How does today’s globalised world and knowledge economy affect the ways in which postgraduate
education occurs? How do unjust legacies and on-going inequities affect who enjoys access to and
success in postgraduate education? These large questions about the structure of the world are
central to the realist concern with how complex events, such as postgraduate education, and the
multiple experiences thereof come into existence.
While Bhaskar’s Critical Realism provides an ontological philosophy of all aspects of the world,
Archer (1995, 1996, 2000) concerns herself specifically with the phenomena and underlying
mechanisms of the social world. She describes the social world as comprising the domains of
‘people’ and ‘parts’. The ‘people’ are understood in terms of agency, which refers to the capacity of
individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices (Archer 1995). By contrast, the
‘parts’, which comprise structure and culture, refer to those factors of influence (such as social class,
institutions, legislation, funding, customs, policy etc.) that determine or limit the extent to which
agency can be activated.
She argues against conflating the domains of the ‘people’ and the ‘parts’ and calls doing so the
‘fallacy of conflation’ (2000:6). She distinguishes between upward, downward and central
conflation, all of which she believes are problematic. In ‘upward conflation’ the powers of the
‘people’ are held to orchestrate those of the ‘parts’ (2000:4). In ‘downward conflation’ the ‘parts’
are seen to organize the ‘people’ (2000:5) while in ‘central conflation’ autonomy is withheld from
both levels because they are mutually constitutive and not considered in their own right (2000:6).
When Archer (1996) discusses ‘structure’ or ‘culture’ in relation to ‘agency’ she is talking about a
relationship between two aspects of social life. She demonstrates that however intimately they are
intertwined, they should nonetheless be analytically distinct.
Archer (1995:133) argues that much research is guilty of one or another form of conflation – where
too much power is accorded to one domain and there is a blind spot as to the causal tendencies of
another domain. According to Archer (1995:15), social realism demands a methodology where an
explanation of why things are “so and not otherwise” depends on an analysis of how the properties
and powers of the ‘people’ intertwine with the properties and power of the ‘parts’. In reality the
‘parts’ and the ‘people’ exist in a constant interplay but Archer (1995:15) argues that for research
purposes, analytical dualism of the ‘people’ (agency) and the ‘parts’ (structure and culture) is
necessary to be able to identify how the different mechanisms work to bring about events and
Danermark, Ekstrom, Jakobsen and Karlsson (2002) explain that ‘dualism’ refers to the fact that
social structures and human agency are different strata, ‘analytical’ to the fact that these strata and
the interaction between them cannot be detected in the flow of social action and human
experiences, but only by means of social scientific analysis. Archer notes that the notion of analytical
dualism was first identified by David Lockwood when he wrote about it in his seminal article on
‘Social integration and System integration’ where he began by distinguishing the ‘parts’ from the
‘people’ and then examining their combinations in order to account for variable outcomes which
otherwise eluded theorization (1995:170).
Archer (1995) further explains that the ‘parts’ are temporally prior to the actions of the ‘people’
because individuals always enter a situation where structures and culture pre-exist them. Having
entered a social context, with its pre-existing structures and cultures, individuals, or groups of
people, then through their actions reproduce or transform the structure and culture. People use
agency to defend their interests or to realise their ‘projects’, and thereby either effect change on
the ‘parts’ within which they are acting, or reinforce the current properties and powers of these
‘parts’. The ‘people’ in society and the ‘parts’ of society are not different aspects of the same thing,
but are radically different in kind (Archer, 1995:15).
To bring the focus of research only on ‘peopl'e’ or on ‘parts’ in order to understand any phenomenon
is to be guilty of upwards or downwards conflation. To consider them as one entwined whole is not
problematic on philosophical grounds, for surely agents reinforce and change structures and
cultures while being simultaneously constrained and enabled by them, but it is problematic on
analytical grounds for if we consider them as one unspecified co-constituted whole we are unable
to explore the relative influence of each. To avoid such errors of conflation in an understanding of
postgraduate education in South Africa, we argue that it is necessary to consider both the ‘people’
and the ‘parts’ and then to look at the interplay between them.
Why do we need such a framework?
While much of the research on postgraduate education is new, this is a rapidly growing area of
concern. There is now a reasonably sized body of literature on postgraduate supervision, and this
offers a sophisticated picture of the roles played by the agents in the form of supervisors and
candidates. This literature details the impact of their emotions, personalities, communication styles,
pedagogical approaches etc. However, we believe that this literature less frequently engages in the
consideration of the ‘parts’ of structure and culture and the interplay between such ‘parts’ and the
relevant agents. We believe that the focused interest in the agents of postgraduate education could
result in upwards conflation, and that there is a need for research that pushes the boundaries to
include a consideration of the structures and cultures of postgraduate supervision and how these
interplay with the actions of the agents.
Alongside research into postgraduate education, there are also a number of guidebooks that aim to
support both supervisor and student in this complex pedagogical space (see, for example, Phillips &
Pugh, 2010; Lee, 2009; Eley & Murray, 2009; Trafford & Leshem, 2008; Wisker, 2012; Kamler &
Thomson, 2006; Murray, 2011; Thomson & Walker, 2010). These books provide detailed discussions
of what the roles and responsibilities of the student and supervisor might be and how they might
best traverse the postgraduate journey together. However, the focus on the candidate and her
supervisors means that very little is said about the institutional, national and global context within
which the postgraduate study takes place. This is perhaps unsurprising as these books are written
for individual candidates and supervisors and so provide advice about the areas in postgraduate
education where these individuals have the most agency. The focus on what the candidate or
supervisor should or should not do could however, create the impression that good practice, in term
of throughput and retention for example, is the result of actions taken by these individuals, rather
than being a phenomenon that merges from the interplay of a myriad mechanisms.
In South Africa, there are likewise a number of key texts on postgraduate supervision that offer a
wealth of insights into how the supervisor can improve her practices and assist her candidates to
achieve excellent research. Works by Mouton (2001), Wadee, Keane, Dietz and Hay (2010), and
Hoofstee (2010) for example, offer support for issues of communication between candidate and
supervisor, different approaches to supervision, and ways to support strong research design. They
pay little attention though to the context within which the supervision takes place or to the ways in
which external structures impact the supervision process. These silences might imply that power
over how the process develops is primarily or even exclusively in the hands of the supervisor and
The pressures from the state and other bodies to increase the postgraduate sector come in various
forms. At an individual level, much weight is given to supervision success in research rating
processes, and at an institutional level the funding formula is structured in a way that greatly
incentivizes postgraduate output in universities. But we argue that good supervision alone cannot
make much impact on the current low levels of postgraduate participation and throughput. Until
we consider the impact of structural and cultural mechanisms alongside those of agency in the
enablement of growth in postgraduate education, we are unlikely to see significant progress. We
believe that calling on Archer’s framework would be one possible way of pushing the boundaries of
research on postgraduate education such that we look at the full context of interacting enabling and
What might be included in such a framework?
The analytical dualism called for by Archer’s social realism is a trick of analysis only. While
acknowledging that the effects of structure, culture and agency are simultaneous and mutually
affecting, the role of the researcher is to momentarily unravel the complex interplay of multiple
mechanisms in order to show the effects they have on each other. This would necessitate looking
at postgraduate education within the cultural context of, for example, institutional ethos and the
structural context of, for example, national policy but would certainly also necessitate seeing how
such structures and cultures ‘rub up against’ the agents involved in postgraduate processes. The
rest of this chapter provides a very introductory discussion of the kinds of agential, structural and
cultural mechanisms that would need to be taken into consideration if postgraduate education is to
be considered from the viewpoint of analytical dualism.
A consideration of agency
There is a growing body of work that considers the ways in which supervisors and postgraduate
scholars engage and what form the pedagogy takes. Research articles on postgraduate education
abound (for example the collection of articles edited by Fataar, 2012; the 2000 special edition of the
South African Journal of Higher Education edited by Bitzer and the special edition of Perspectives in
Education edited by Herman, 2011), and entire conferences are now dedicated to this issue
journals and conferences are concerned with a broad range of issues including approaches to
supervision, completion rates and student satisfaction.
The main, though certainly not exclusive, focus of such work has been on the agency of supervisors
and postgraduate scholars. Archer (2007) argues that there are three kinds of agents and that we
need to look at people and their ‘personal projects’ (2007:4) in the light of the kinds of agency they
are able to claim.
Primary agents (Archer 2007) are typically unable to exercise much agency due to their
disempowered position in society in relation to socially scarce resources. Primary agents are subject
to ‘involuntary positioning’ (Mutch 2004:433) as a result of external factors such as the
demographics of age and gender. While it is an exercise of agency to undertake postgraduate studies
and requires a strong commitment to a ‘personal project’, most scholars are, we would argue,
primary agents. They are positioned by their novice status in the academy and they are largely
subject to the norms and values of the supervisors, the institution and the discipline. In South Africa
and elsewhere, they may also be disempowered through their uneven access to academic
Social actors (Archer 2007) are individuals who can claim a strong identity because of their
association with a particular role or position in society. The supervisor may well be considered a
social actor who is able to exercise a number of powerful personal properties by virtue of her
institutionally (and socially) recognized position. Research into postgraduate education undertaken
in this framework would need to look at how the role of ‘supervisor’ is constructed in the institution
and the extent to which such construction enables and constrains the actions of the individual
embodying the role. It may be that in some circumstances, the supervisors find themselves to be
primary agents with little space to enact their personal project because of the ways in which other
social actors, such as institutional management, have constructed the postgraduate education
The third group of agents identified by Archer (2007) are corporate agents. These are groups of
people who are organized around a common interest. By grouping together and organizing, it is
For example, every two years there is a Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference in Australia and a
Postgraduate Supervision Conference in South Africa.
possible for those with limited personal power to bring about structural changes. Studies of
postgraduate education using Archer’s framework would need to consider whether collectives of
students or supervisors are able to function as corporate agents and how and why this occurs.
Bringing a social realist framework to postgraduate education would thus entail the kind of detailed
look at the experiences of scholars and supervisors that is already found in much of the current
research (for example Lee & Green 2009, Leshem & Trafford 2007, Grant 2003, Wisker 2010). The
framework would also entail a look at other agents whose actions could constrain or enable
postgraduate education, such as those working in institutional management and administration.
The focus on the ways in which agents act within and upon the world entails a consideration of their
‘personal projects’ and the extent to which they are able to activate their ‘personal emergent
properties and powers’ (Archer 2007). We need to focus on agency because any changes planned
through policy or direct interventions are mediated by individuals who creatively enact or resist
The analytical dualist approach required by Archer’s social realism, however, insists that the
researcher does not consider issues of agency alone but does so within the context of the structures
and cultures that enable and constrain the activation of such agency. We now turn to briefly suggest
just two of the structures that would need to be interrogated should such a broad framework be
implemented in the analysis of the sector.
The differentiated structure of South African Higher Education
The White Paper (RSA DoE 1997) outlined the framework for post-apartheid change, that is, that
the higher education system must be planned, governed and funded as a single national co-
ordinated system. But this system was to look very different to that of the apartheid era. The South
African higher education system faced major reconstruction in the form of multiple mergers and
incorporations from 2002 onwards as 36 public higher education institutions were reduced to 23.
This was done in order to overcome fragmentation, inequality and inefficiency and it was from this
process that the current higher education differentiation of institutional type was birthed. The ways
in which the structural realities of the resulting sector play into the enactment of postgraduate
teaching and learning needs careful interrogation.
Badsha and Cloete (2011) report that a broad spectrum of the South African higher education
community accepted differentiation as a strategy to bring greater diversity and fitness for purpose
into the system. The three institutional types focus on different but overlapping forms of higher
education. Traditional Universities offer primarily general and professional qualifications in the form
of degrees, Universities of Technology offer primarily vocational qualifications in the form of
diplomas and Comprehensive Universities offer a combination of the two. Such groupings are thus
clustered around qualification type and purpose.
Adkins (2009) noted that there are few studies examining the links between the knowledge
requirements of different types of universities and their implications for the experiences of students
and supervisory processes. Do Universities of Technology work more closely with industry to solve
workplace problems and should this drive specific applied kinds of postgraduate knowledge? Do
current drivers of postgraduate output have a deleterious effect on undergraduate teaching and
learning? Does the need for strong undergraduate output mean that only some institutions should
be encouraged to grow postgraduate output? And if so, on what basis do the state and the higher
education sector determine where such growth should occur and how it should be driven?
National drives to grow postgraduate education need to be guided by considerations of the ways in
which such differentiation affects postgraduate education in terms of kinds of output as well as
quantity. Seventy-four per cent of doctoral graduations come from just seven institutions (Badat
2010:23). Generic capacity building projects and system-wide funding incentives that fail to take
differentiation into account may prove to be counterproductive.
One of the starkest ways in which differentiation plays into postgraduate education is the extent to
which there is institutional capacity for supervision. One marker of such capacity is the number of
staff with doctorates. Work by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) shows us
that the percentage of academics with doctorates in Traditional Universities ranges from 59% down
to 16%, in Comprehensive Universities the range is 37% to 9% and in Universities of Technology the
range is 24% to 5% (CHET 2010). At a system level, only 32% of academics have doctorates (Badat
2010:21). In the old Technikon system, lecturers were usually hired on the basis of their industry
expertise rather than their academic qualifications (Powell 2011) and this continues to be evident
in the qualification profile of different institutions.
Another marker of an institution’s capacity to offer quality postgraduate education is its research
output. Postgraduate education is reliant not only on having staff with the necessary qualifications
but also on having the ethos of valuing research and providing the kind of institutional space that
makes it possible. The differing teaching loads between Universities of Technology and Traditional
Universities, for example, must affect the quantity of research output that is possible (Powell 2011).
The research output of the South African higher education system as a whole is low but it is also
highly differentiated (CHET 2010). The statistical analysis provided by CHET not only raises questions
of capacity to offer postgraduate education but also about whether this should be the goal for all
segments of the sector, given our great need for quality undergraduate education.
CHET have done enormous work looking at a range of indicators that could help us to understand
differentiation in South Africa, some of which relate to the offering of postgraduate education. It is
clear from their analyses that there are three distinct groupings of universities (that they call the
red, blue and green group), but that these do not entirely mirror the three institutional types of
Traditional University, Comprehensive University and University of Technology. An understanding
of differentiation therefore needs to go beyond that of the three types to understand the ways in
which this is manifest in the South African higher education system. Such an understanding needs
to be fundamental to calls for increased postgraduate output. The structural mechanisms of
institutional type, function and capacity are central to where and how such postgraduate education
could occur and what is needed to make it happen.
Blunt drivers of postgraduate education can have unintended consequences if mechanisms such as
institutional differentiation are not taken into account. The current funding formula, for example,
provides financial incentives for postgraduate growth, but does so in a uniform way that undermines
the development of differentiation. Academic drift that negatively affects undergraduate education
(Badat 2010), acceptance of postgraduate students without the required supervision capacity and
the valuing of postgraduate supervision over excellent undergraduate teaching are just some of
difficulties that emerge from a drive for blanket growth of postgraduate education.
Singh notes that a differentiated higher education system is generally understood as necessary for
“widening participation and increasing user choice, attaining competitive excellence in country or
across countries, and making targeted contributions to national and regional development”
(2008:245) but she goes on to indicate that contestations about the forms and benefits of
differentiation also abound and may be more acute in developing countries. Singh notes that
differentiation in South Africa is made more complex by the contextual conditionalities of our past.
Differentiation often results in problematic hierarchies of institutions where the main purpose of a
particular institutional type is seen to hold higher or lower status but this can assume “a greater
socio-political edge in a country like South Africa, given its history of structural inequality and racial
profiling” (Singh 2008:247).
We now turn briefly to consider how the issue of institutional history acts as another related
mechanism constraining or enabling postgraduate education.
All universities in South Africa have been culturally and structurally conditioned by apartheid.
Despite two decades having past since the implementation of democracy in South Africa and despite
the use of mergers to restructure the higher education sector, the histories of our universities
remains very much in evidence and continues to have bearing on the offering of postgraduate
education. Technikons, for example, were developed to play specific skills development roles
(Winberg 2005) and Afrikaans medium institutions were structured to reproduce the ideologies of
nationalism (Bunting 2002) but it was the historically disadvantaged institutions that “bore the brunt
of apartheid thinking, because of the way material resources were denied to them” (Boughey &
Research by CHET indicates that postgraduate output is particularly low in historically disadvantaged
institutions (2010), a phenomenon which can be traced to the location and histories of these
institutions. Bunting (2002) argues that historically disadvantaged universities were not expected to
produce research and that postgraduate education was not deemed to be appropriate for the black
student body. Supervision capacity and a research ethos were thus not part of the historically
disadvantaged institutions. Research by Boughey and McKenna (2010) suggests that such capacity
has not yet been sufficiently developed to redress these structural inequities.
The paltry history of postgraduate education in historically disadvantaged institutions was further
constrained by a lack of institutional management capacity and a lack of financial resources. While
historically advantaged universities had enjoyed a level of financial autonomy from the apartheid
state, in that they managed their own budgets, technikons and historically disadvantaged
institutions had to have budgets and even staff employment approved by the state (Bunting 2002).
They were also not allowed to retain any surplus funds and so did not develop financial trusts in the
ways that historically advantaged institutions did, nor did they develop the capacity to manage their
Historically disadvantaged institutions then experienced shortfalls in student funding with the
movement of many of their students to historically advantaged institutions (Scott, Yeld & Hendry
2007) and with the remaining students often being unable to pay fees, despite such fees being
notably lower than in the advantaged institutions. Furthermore disadvantaged institutions could
not meet such shortfalls through increased research output or third stream income as these
institutions were poorly placed both geographically and in terms of capacity (Boughey & McKenna
Research that draws on institutional audit portfolios suggests that historically disadvantaged
institutions suffer from low staff morale and a concern about academic identity, and that a discourse
of demoralization permeating such universities remains evident (Boughey & McKenna 2010). If
academic integrity is understood to emerge from an academic identity (Henkel 2000, Becher &
Trowler 2001) then a lack of clear academic project and vibrant intellectual climate could be seen
to be a major constraining mechanism in any development of postgraduate education.
Interventions aimed at increasing postgraduate education cannot be aimed purely in the realm of
the agency of supervisors and their students. They need to take into account the ways in which
structure and culture affect the processes. Supervising postgraduate students in a well-resourced
university where one’s colleagues are all highly qualified and actively involved in research is quite
different from doing so in an institution where one is the only person in the department with a
doctorate and where the university offers little in the way of engaged academic debate.
This chapter has offered an introductory argument that both our research into and our policy
development for the postgraduate sector needs to take careful consideration of structural and
cultural mechanisms alongside those of agency. We have recommended that Social Realism offers
one possible theoretical framing for a more nuanced consideration of the sector, demanding as it
does that the people and the parts be considered separately as well as their interplay, if we are to
make sense of the current low participation and high dropout rates in the postgraduate sector.
Growth in quantity and quality will not occur if interventions developed to this end are guilty of
upwards conflation, whereby the capacity development and reward systems are directed at
individual supervisors alone rather than at the full range of mechanisms constraining postgraduate
education. While the development of coaching, mentoring and communication skills, amongst
others, can have an enormously beneficial effect on the pedagogical practices of individual
supervisors, there will be little system level advancement without engagement with the ways in
which the culture and structures of a discipline, an institution and a higher education system affect
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