Universities are institutions devoted to developing innovation that are also very conservative (McLennan, 2008; Valsiner et al., 2018). Universities are also constantly challenged to meet the call of neoliberal demands, which often turns them into institutions that prioritize market demand by training a qualified workforce. Consequently, higher education institution tend to reduce their innovation investments on humanistic and social education (Battaly, 2014; Dazzani et al., 2020). The rhetoric of innovation and quality hides resistance to change, formalism and conformism (Tateo, 2018). If Szulevics, Lund and Lund (2021) had considered the everyday practices of Danish psychology programs would have probably realized that the process of writing a master thesis is framed by a number of formal constraints, rules and templates that kill creativity and lead students to stay in their comfort zones by repeating what has been already done before.
The academic conservatism is also expressed in rigid disciplinary boundaries, ways of evaluating and grading that favour reproductive writing rather than innovation. Students worry about grades and performances, which are the most important element of evaluation. If there is an institutional pressure to conform and reproduce, why should students take the risk of trying something unusual? This results in what Matthiesen & Wegener (2019) call well-written boring theses. As any educational institution, universities send ambivalent messages to students (Gomes et al., 2018; Tateo, 2018): “be creative but do not write outside the lines”; “work in group but be assessed individually”; “choose your own problem statement but don’t go out of your discipline’s borders”; “be critical but don’t ask stupid questions; “be international but study only in your national language”; etc. This is of course not a peculiarity of the Danish academic context studied by Szulevics, Lund and Lund (2021). Universities are also institutions that share some common values and practices while being very nationalistic. Two cultures overlap in higher education. On the one hand, the shared academic culture, sometimes dating back centuries with its own values, rituals, typical characters, power relations, architectures, oppression and conservatism but also moments of sudden breakthrough. The ambivalent nature of the mainstream academic culture of the Global North was nicely depicted in the popular series “The Chair” (Steinberg, 2021), in which every scholar could recognize a familiar character. Silva Guimarães (2022) talked about academic rites and myths that build an apparent state of peace, mediating between an institution that tends to perpetuate itself through crystallized practices and a continuous turnover of students’ cohorts that need to learn the academic code of communication. The dialectic between stability and change, inclusion and exclusion may be more relevant to understand the academic life rather than old-fashioned binaries such as quantitative/qualitative.
On the other hand, Humboldtian universities were imbued with national identity, and the post-Humboldtian neo-liberal competitive model is further promoting the interpretation of universities’ ranking in nationalistic sense (Ash, 2006).
Moreover, Szulevics, Lund and Lund (2021) do not consider another important aspect of the actual academic practice in Denmark. Since the higher education reform in 2015, which introduced the new public management model, the socialdemocratic Scandinavian and the neo-liberal tradition, the rules of thesis supervision were built in such a way to inhibit a form of craftsmanship and affective mentoring supposedly to provide a fair and equal treatment to all the students. For instance, if one reads the master thesis writing and supervision rules at the Danish university of Aalborg (AAU Studienævnet, 2021). It is available only in Danish, of course, yet one can see how the master thesis writing is strictly regulated, including for instance the fact that the supervisor must approve the list of references the student wants to use. The student handbook provides guidelines for the content, length, table of content of the master thesis (AAU Studienævnet, 2021). Sticking to those formal rules is subject to the censor evaluation and thus determines the final grade of the thesis. If the student does not comply, their work will be considered not well-written. Now, imagine a student who wants to adopt an innovative qualitative research methodology such as art-based approaches. The format of the master thesis will never fit into the existing framework and may be under evaluated. So, it is not surprising that, as Szulevics, Lund and Lund (2021) note, qualitative methods in MA theses are often limited to few semi-structured interviews that are well-established and acceptable to any academic tradition. This leads to a reproductive and conservative attitude towards the methods of data construction and analysis. Students are not urged to reflect on the means by which they produce their data, let alone the theoretical assumptions that support them.
The choice of the master thesis supervisor is not completely up to the student and it is formally the department that assigns a supervisor to the student, on the basis of a generic match with the thesis topic. There are few cases in which student express a preference for a specific supervisor, a professor that maybe had a particular charisma or is working on a project of interest.
Moreover, in the current regulation, all the students have the right to the same amount of supervision hours (in Scandinavia is average 10 h). It is considered unfair to ask for supervision exceeding the amount. Yet, any teacher knows that every student need is different. Some students require more guidance and emotional support; some work in a more independent way; some need a dialogue to elaborate ideas; etc. A rigid organization of supervision’s hours is required only by accounting needs but not by pedagogical needs. Such a rigid organization implicitly limits the reciprocal demands between students and their supervisors. On the one hand, time is a border pole that delimits both the boundaries of the supervisor’s work and the limits of the student’s access to their supervisor.
The academic rules frame the pedagogical relationship between supervisor and student as an impersonal and distant one in order to provide a fair and equal treatment. Actually, they defuse the affective dimension of pedagogical mentoring and turn the master thesis into the umpteenth instrumental action towards a qualification for the labour market. In such an instrumental and an affective framework, it is not surprising that the master students choose to follow the familiar reproductive path of standardized theses. It is fully compliant with the instrumental logic of productivity: obtaining the maximum outcome with the minimum effort in the shortest time. Besides the issues in the research design – as for instance the fact that in the 48% of the theses analysed it is not possible to determine the methodological approach, Szulevics, Lund and Lund (2021) focus only on the outcome without considering the whole ecosystem a master thesis is part of and the complex processes involved in this intellectual production. As all the conservative revolutionaries inspired by good will, they do not take their premises to the radical consequences.