EUA Council for Doctoral Education


The road towards structured doctoral education: insights from Ireland

Key players in Irish higher education have published a study about the implementation of the Irish National Framework for Doctoral Education. EUA expert Helene Peterbauer provides first-hand insights from the study and makes two recommendations for higher education systems seeking to enhance their post-graduate research provision.

In the summer of 2021, a consortium of four key players in Irish higher education published a study about the Irish National Framework for Doctoral Education, which had been conducted by a team of international experts commissioned by EUA Solutions. The key players were Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the Irish Universities Association (IUA) and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA).

The framework, which was introduced in 2015, is based on nine principles and drew inspiration from the Salzburg Principles (2005 and 2010). Five years later, the EUA Solutions expert team was tasked with finding out how the framework was translated into institutional practice and whether it is fulfilling its purpose of facilitating consistent excellence in post-graduate research education, specifically in doctoral programmes and master’s programmes with a strong research component.

This study was undertaken at a time of structural change, even transformation in Irish higher education. The Technological Universities Act, long discussed and enacted in 2018, had only recently heralded a transformation of the institutional landscape by incentivising institutes of technology to merge and apply for the status of a technological university, which implies full authority to award doctoral research degrees. On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic was in full swing. In short, it was an interesting moment to be talking to institutional management, supervisors and post-graduate research students (which in this context includes master’s students and doctoral candidates) about any changes they see (or oversee) at their institution.

The team’s conclusions, which are based on the results of a survey, interviews and desk research, indicate that the framework was a success. The team found that it had induced various measures to enhance the quality of post-graduate research programmes across all institutions and replace the old master-apprentice model common to the doctorate with one of professionalised research education. Typical examples of such measures include the introduction or expansion of the co-tutelle/joint supervision, credit-bearing courses and transferable skills training. Even survey respondents and interviewees from institutions where such practices had been in place before the framework’s introduction highlighted that it was a useful lever of change internally and a tool to communicate the values underpinning Irish post-graduate research education externally, both nationally and internationally.

However, not all of the study’s findings indicate that the years to come would be plain sailing. The most common concerns expressed in interviews related to the continuing trend of growing student numbers and limited resources across the entire higher education system, including implications for workloads among staff and students. These issues had been present before the pandemic, but many had been exacerbated since 2020. For example, while in previous years there had already been increased competition for workspaces, such as in labs or libraries, access was naturally even more restricted during institutional lockdowns. Most strikingly, though, the team noted that the ongoing or expected merging of most of Ireland’s remaining institutes of technology into technological universities seemed to present greater challenges than Covid-19, with representatives of both institutional types wondering about the long-term implications: these mergers will have a structural impact on the national landscape of post-graduate research, since more institutions will have their own authority to award the doctorate. Moreover, in the immediate future, those institutes of technology applying for the status of a technological university have to meet threshold proportions of research students to apply, and to further increase those proportions in the following ten-year period. Another question the team addressed was the further implementation of the framework, which aims to facilitate consistent excellence, and what this would mean for the culture and community at the existing institutes of technology. Many of these institutes had been able to offer highly individualised programmes, thanks to relatively low post-graduate student numbers, but this is bound to change as they merge into bigger, doctorate-awarding institutions with more formalised post-graduate research degrees and associated support structures.

This raises the question: is post-graduate research, and most notably the doctorate which in many systems is still coined by a mentoring relationship between the candidate and one supervisor, losing something by focusing on consistency in its quality? The study findings indicate nothing of that kind. The team mostly encountered candidates that appreciate the more diversified course offer, supervisors that welcome shared supervision responsibility and managerial staff that highlighted that the opportunities for cooperation across institutions opened by the introduction of a common framework. The team also encountered highly devoted supervisors and formed an impression of harmonious relations between candidates and supervisors. None of these findings support the concerns associated with emerging trends like shared supervision and structured doctoral programmes, which typically caution against weakened supervisor-candidate relationships and an autonomy and creativity-inhibiting alignment of the doctorate with the second and the third cycle.

Considering that the framework is relatively young and alignment with it still ongoing in many institutions, much work still lies ahead. Enhanced collaboration and community-building involving all providers of post-graduate research education would greatly facilitate this work, especially because many institutes of technology will rely on other institutions, nationally and internationally, with more established doctoral provision to share their expertise and to help to increase the numbers of staff with doctoral level qualifications.

This insight holds two recommendations for higher education systems seeking to enhance their post-graduate research provision outside Ireland. First, as in other countries, funding pressures are casting a shadow over cooperation needs in Irish higher education. Yet, as suggested in the study report, reputation, including that of post-graduate research education, is a collective responsibility, especially in small higher education systems. Having a national framework for doctoral education was found to be an excellent basis to build a coherent system of consistent quality, but collaboration across the sector will be needed to cement it in the long term.

Second, maintaining both an inward and outward-looking approach to enhancing provision will be helpful too. The Irish consortium had sought an external view to reap the benefits of fresh perspectives. Active international engagement and peer exchange allows more countries to benchmark their system internationally and enhance post-graduate research provision.

Helene Peterbauer was a member of the expert team that conducted the EUA Solutions study on the implementation of the Irish National Framework for Doctoral Education. EUA Solutions is a membership service that provides on-demand, tailored and flexible solutions to those seeking support for change processes and policy development.

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Helene Peterbauer

Helene Peterbauer is a Policy Analyst in the EUA Institutional Development Unit where she focuses on learning and teaching, as well as academic recognition. Prior to joining EUA, she was a pre-doc assistant and lecturer at the University of Vienna. She holds Master’s degrees in German Studies and Scandinavian Studies, as well as a Doctorate in Scandinavian Studies, all from the University of Vienna.