Doctoral Supervision & Community Engagement in a Globalised World

Dr Michalis Kontopodis welcomes potential PhD students interested in youth studies, critical psychology, global education and/or media research to contact him and discuss their ideas and research proposals. His approach to doctoral supervision is described below: 

Traditionally, students pursuing PhDs in countries such as the UK were a homogenous group, largely consisting of white, middle-class young adults. The cultural, ethnic and socio-economic characteristics of HE students in the UK as well as worldwide have changed dramatically over the last few decades in response to social movements claiming access for all; to policies such as the 1997 Widening Participation Strategy by the New Labour government under Tony Blair; as well as to the broader needs of the knowledge economy (cf. Farrell & Fenwick, 2007). Also novel and reflected in the marketing terms used in the above-mentioned article by Fleischman et al. (2010) is an expectation that each individual student is seen as a ‘customer [who] co-constructs the service experience to suit her context’, ideally through dialogue, personalised experiences, joint problem definition and problem- solving (p. 16).

Treating students as individual customers is currently also an element of a broader ‘audit’ or ‘performativity culture’ – a culture that has been much criticised by sociological, anthropological and feminist scholars (Firtha & Martens, 2008; Strathern, 2000). However, integrating PhD students with diverse gender or socio-cultural backgrounds and biographical trajectories into the academic life in a personalised way need not only go together with an ‘audit’ or ‘performativity culture’ – it can also be seen as an important step towards building more inclusive and just universities (and therefore societies) on local and global levels.

P. Burke - Book CoverIn her book The right to higher education: Beyond widening participation (2012), Penny Jane Burke draws on an impressive array of resources, including feminist post-structuralism and critical pedagogy; national and institutional policy documents; interviews with social inclusion practitioners and students; as well as comparisons with the US and India. On these grounds, Burke explores ways of overcoming institutional politics of misrecognition and silencing, and of introducing new forms of literacy and writing so as to address the needs as well as the emotions, desires and experiences of male and female students from various cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Burke does not specifically refer to PhD students, yet her account is highly relevant to the broader discussion about the styles and approaches of doctoral supervision (cf. Deutchar, 2008). It can certainly form a basis for a politics of integration in contemporary academia.

Integrating PhD students into local community activities, as Fleischman et al.(2010) suggest, could further enhance such a politics of integration. Fleischman et al. develop a conceptual model for understanding how community engagement can be used as a marketing mechanism to co-create value in the international student experience – ultimately creating a competitive advantage. Even if one could take critical distance from the marketing discourse of the paper, this conceptual model (see Figure 1, adapted from Fleischman,, 2010, p. 19) draws our attention on two dimensions that have been central in the relevant literature as revised in the paper:

Figure1 - adapted from Fleischman,, 2010

  • Rather than viewing community engagement and value co-creation as discrete constructs, the relevant literature proposes an understanding of community engagement as value co-creation (for all involved parts, i.e. for the students and university as well as for local communities).
  • The model then differentiates between the expectations and the levels of community engagement and integration of both novice and longer-term students – thus exploring community engagement as something that changes over time.

Although the paper by Fleischman et al. is conceptual and does not present any empirical data, the proposed model can provide the basis for promoting the engagement of international PhD students in local community activities. This can have significant implications in terms of enriching the students’ experiences as well as in terms of bridging the gap between the international rigour and local applicability of academic research.

Doctoral student involvement in academic and community life cannot, however, nowadays respond only to local necessities (referring to the locality of the university, the field of research and/or the student’s region of origin). The current world is characterised by humanitarian and economic crises that spread quickly from one place to the other. Within this frame, PhD students need to re-imagine collectivity as well as develop best academic practices on the basis of cosmopolitan values such as those proposed by Beck and Levy (2013). ‘Importing’ PhD students from BRIC and developing countries simply for profit purposes, without addressing broader global issues, cannot in this context be seen as an ethical practice – however well integrated and respected the international students may be with regards to recognition and enhanced local community engagement as framed in the above-discussed approaches.

I therefore see an urgent need for the expansion and application of civic, intercultural, cosmopolitan and global citizenship educational approaches in the field of doctoral supervision, similar to those developed in the aftermath of the Second World War for the primary and secondary educational provision (cf. Peters, Britton & Blee, 2008; Wulf & Merkel, 2002; Wulf, Poulain, & Triki, 2009). International PhD students have the potential to become ambassadors in promoting values such as inclusion, civic engagement, tolerance, respect, human dignity and peace on a global scale through their research and academic practice, and this is much needed in the contemporary world. Of course a successful completion of the PhD is essential for this, and this can be achieved by balancing autonomy and control-oriented supervision, as well as intellectual and emotional development (cf. Deutchar, 2008; Firtha & Martens, 2008). However, achieving globally significant PhD research and engagement requires much more than autonomy, self-transformation and managerial tasks: it requires higher morality, societal vision and hope in the sense of Paulo Freire, whose pedagogy of hope seems to be more timely than ever before (cf. Freire & Freire, 1994).

I strongly hope to see more research on PhD learning, writing and supervision in this direction in the years to come.


Beck, U., & Levy, D. (2013). Cosmopolitanised nations: Re-imagining collectivity in world risk society. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(2), 3-31.

Burke, P. J. (2012). The right to higher education: Beyond widening participation. London: Routledge.

Deutchar, R. (2008). Facilitator, director or critical friend? Contradiction and congruence in doctoral supervision styles. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), 489-500.

Farrell, L., & Fenwick, T. (Eds.) (2007). Educating the global workforce: Knowledge, knowledge work and knowledge workers (World Yearbook of Education 2007). London and New York: Routledge.

Firtha, A., & Martens, E. (2008). Transforming supervisors? A critique of post-liberal approaches to research supervision. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(3), 279-289.

Fleischman, D., Lawley, M., & Raciti, M. M. (2010). Enhancing the international student experience with community engagement: A Conceptual model. e-Journal of Business Education & Scholarship of Teaching, 4(2), 13-26.

Freire, P., & Freire, A. M. A. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving the pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Peters, M., Britton, A., & Blee, H. (Eds.) (2008). Global citizenship education: Philosophy, theory and Pedagogy. Rotterdam: Sense.

Strathern, M. (2000). Audit cultures: Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. London New York: Routledge.

Wulf, C., & Merkel, C. (Eds.) (2002). Globalisierung als Herausforderung der Erziehung: Theorien, Grundlagen, Fallstudien. Münster: Waxmann.

Wulf, C., Poulain, J., & Triki, F. (Eds.) (2009). Erziehung und Demokratie: Europäische, muslimische und arabische Länder im Dialog. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.