It is at the apex of higher education, research and innovation, but issues around integrity and employability must be addressed for doctoral education to continue to thrive, says Luke Georghiou.
Ambitious targets to tackle economic and social challenges by increasing research spending in turn mean that many more trained researchers will be needed. Doctoral education is a central part of this scenario. Across Europe, doctoral candidates are working at the interface between education, research and innovation. However, the changing nature of research and how it is used pose new challenges for universities in developing the next generation of researchers. This year the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) is celebrating its first decade of providing both a framework and practical guidance for its 242 member institutions from 35 countries across Europe.
The number of doctorate holders has been rising steeply, with approximately 750,000 currently in study across Europe. In response, universities have set up doctoral schools and programmes to ensure research environments that can make them grow as future researchers. In 2006, the EUA calculated that 29 per cent of European universities had doctoral schools or other forms of structured doctoral education. According to a new EUA survey, today it is closer to 90 per cent. EUA-CDE brings together those who have some of the longest standing and largest doctoral schools with universities that are seeking to systematise and grow their offer.
However, doctoral education also faces a number of challenges, such as preparing candidates for multiple career paths, the impact of open science on current and future generations of early-career researchers, as well as increased concerns about research integrity.
Despite the growing tendency for variety in doctoral careers, we are not very good at tracking them. There are good reasons to suspect that surveys exaggerate the numbers remaining in the research system, because many spend up to a decade in temporary posts before settling into a more secure career. Indeed, as single-lifetime careers become rarer we need to adapt our training to prepare for portfolio careers.
Universities also need to ensure that their training provides awareness of the broader aspects of research, such as ethics, public engagement and transferable skills. Many will find employment in business and the public sector, ensuring that society benefits from the transfer of research knowledge. Increasingly entrepreneurship is becoming an option for those who wish to found their own start-up businesses. All of these pathways have implications for training, but we should not forget that their employability is founded in the intrinsic capabilities endowed by the doctorate such as the capacity for critical and original thought and an openness to evidence-based solutions.
Doctoral education is at the forefront of Europe’s digital transformation in research, not only in mobilising, training and raising awareness among researchers, but also in promoting open science policies and practices that will revolutionise Europe’s scientific potential. Open science is strongly supported by most doctoral researchers, but they are also the most vulnerable to the coming transition, facing hurdles based on journal hierarchies when seeking employment.
Embedding ethics and integrity in research begins with doctoral education. There is an increasing focus in Europe and beyond on the public trust in science. Doctoral candidates need to be trained to deal with these issues in order to preserve and develop a moral compass that is vital for strong research integrity in the digital age. The many demands made upon doctoral candidates have also contributed to a growing concern about their welfare and mental health. Work-life balance, isolation and career insecurity are contributory factors and it is a challenge to universities and individual supervisors to find ways to mitigate these factors.
Doctoral schools are the places where higher education, research and innovation and society meet. They contribute to training researchers capable of engaging with society and help them to develop innovative solutions to Europe’s industry and other economic sectors. Doctoral candidates make a critical contribution to research but they are individuals not instruments and we have a responsibility towards them.
No one can address these issues alone, but Europe’s universities can work together and policymakers need to support them. At a time when European values are under pressure – and digitalisation is transforming the way we work and live – doctoral education matters more than ever in safeguarding a progressive, inclusive society and making sure Europe is ready for a changing world.
University leaders and policymakers will discuss the future of doctoral education and more at the Council for Doctoral Education’s Annual Meeting on “Excellence through Diversity: Doctoral education in a globalised world ” on 7-8 June in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
This editorial was first published in Times Higher Education on 6 June 2018EUA Blog
“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.
Over the past few years, Finnish universities have implemented significant reforms in doctoral education. Unlike other many other major reforms in the Finnish higher education sector, developing doctoral education has been based primarily on the universities own, institutional-level activities and initiatives rather than prescribed regulations of the Ministry of Education and Culture.
There are two important reasons for this. Firstly, unlike in the case of bachelor- and master-level degrees, Finnish university legislation does not contain strict regulations on doctoral education. The legislation merely provides a loose framework for the structure of doctoral degrees, mainly focusing on the grading procedures of dissertations. There are no norms regulating important issues such as the structure of doctoral programmes, the length of studies or the conditions for the expiration of student status. Secondly, the development of doctoral education has become more internationalised, particularly in Europe, owing to the parallel policy questions, and pressures throughout European countries. This development has clearly shifted the responsibility of policy formulation from the national to the international level.
In line with this development, the role of the European University Association and its Council for Doctoral Education in promoting the development of European doctoral education has been important also in the context of Finnish reforms. Particularly, many of the Salzburg Principles (2005) and the subsequent Salzburg Recommendations" (2010) have been materialised in several universitylevel reforms. For instance, four dimensions derived from the Recommendations have turned out to be influential in the development of Finnish doctoral education.
The first is on recruitment, admission and status. Most universities have now developed more structured admission policies. In general, universities have become more selective in their admissions in order to improve the quality of doctoral training. A limited number of doctoral students also ensures better quality doctoral supervision, more targeted and streamlined curriculum development and the possibility to provide support for the most talented students. Higher levels of selectivity go hand-in-hand with the national policy goal that the number of doctoral degrees annually should not increase in the future (today Finnish universities award around 1,900 degrees per year).
The second recommendation used is on the supervision of doctoral students. All universities in Finland have established one or more doctoral schools to coordinate doctoral education in faculties and programmes. One of the tasks of the schools has been the development and distribution of good practices concerning supervision. For instance, supervisory agreements defining the responsibilities of the supervisors and the doctoral candidate are widely in use, and personal study plans for each student are agreed on and updated and monitored regularly. Some universities have set a maximum number of students that one supervisor is allowed to supervise in order to secure higher quality in supervision.
The third focuses on career development. Universities in Finland are now paying more attention to the employability of doctoral candidates. For instance, most universities offer transferable skills courses that aim to equip doctoral candidates with generic skills required in academic and non-academic labour markets. Moreover, university career services units are starting to acknowledge the importance of offering their services to doctoral candidates as well. Since 2007, doctoral graduates have been included in the graduate employability surveys conducted jointly by the country’s network of university academic career services units (Aarresaari Network).
Finally, the fourth area is funding. Universities in Finland are now offering fellowships or salaried, fixed-term positions for the most talented doctoral candidates. At the same time, many universities support their candidates with travel grants to support their possibilities for early career networking. Some universities also offer dissertation completion grants that can be paid to doctoral candidates at the final stages of their research. These grants allow students to work full-time on their dissertations for the last one to three months before submitting their theses for evaluation.
Also beyond these four examples, the aims and actualisation of the latest Finnish reforms in doctoral education seem to be in line with many of the goals outlined in the Salzburg Principles and Recommendations.
The autonomy of universities is likely to play a more active role in self-initiated, proactive development activities, in Finland and in other countries. Finnish examples add more evidence that universities, if they want, can quickly take up European-level trends and developments and bypass slower-paced government initiatives when implementing new ideas. Finnish reforms of doctoral education also verify that distributing information on international good practices can become a more effective tool for government steering (as opposed to regulation and financial incentives). As such, it can be used to reinforce the signals of other stakeholders – such as the European University Association and the European Commission – when these are considered to be in line with national policy interests.