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EUROPE
Universities warned against adopting taught doctorates

A joint declaration by the presidents of Europe’s main rectors' conferences* has called for doctoral training to involve original research documented in the form of a dissertation.

The declaration set out nine points, which describe the aims of doctoral training as being to qualify for research careers in science, academia, the economy and society in general “by original research and documented by a dissertation”.

It states that doctoral training should not be seen as an additional study cycle, that courses in transferable skills should be selected by doctoral candidates on their own and that the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, or ECTS, was not required.

The statement also calls on universities to allow departments to assume responsibility for doctoral training while providing transparent selection procedures and adequate supervision and examination.

Support for a “transdisciplinary dialogue within the specific doctoral training” is recommended, as well as the fostering of “a research mind-set of the holders of doctoral degrees and their ability for intellectual risk-taking and for creativity”.

'No need for standardisation'

The statement says the high degree of diversity in doctoral training opportunities and systems across Europe, which cater to diverse needs in different member states of the union, is to be welcomed. "We see no need for the standardisation of doctoral training,” it says.

University World News asked the German Rectors’ Conference about the background to the joint statement, and whether the primary objective was a kind of 'deregulation' of doctoral studies within the European Higher Education Area.

Dr Gerhard Duda, head of the Brussels office of the conference, said the signing organisations were worried that the individual research performance of doctoral candidates would not remain the core of the doctoral training but rather could move in the direction of becoming a third, taught degree.

"A formal regulation of doctoral training with instruments typical for the BA and MA study phases (such as the ECTS) does not help develop the necessary research mind-set of a doctorate degree-holder, which is their real future asset,” Duda said.

“It is doubtful that a formal regulation would help solve the problems facing countries and institutions lacking an excellent research environment. Every national university system that has problems providing an excellent research environment has to find its own solutions – in particular, in small states or small science communities by integrating the cooperation of international partners in supervision and examining of doctoral candidates.”

Katrien Maes, chief policy officer of the League of European Research Universities, or LERU, said the league had issued a statement in 2007, in the context of the Bologna Process ministers of education meeting, that left no doubt that doctoral education was and should remain research-driven.

"It must not fall prey to ‘cookie-cutter’ standardisation,” Maes said. "The statement emphasised that the design of doctoral training must remain clearly distinct from that of the first and second cycles of higher education in the Bologna Process. The processes that lead to the best outcomes in the case of doctoral training differ dramatically depending on individual, disciplinary and national contexts.”

She said research-driven PhD training was unlikely to benefit from and could well suffer from the degree of uniformisation that the Bologna Process was successfully creating in the first and second higher education cycles in many European countries.

"Research-based PhD training, which requires a careful balancing of educational and research perspectives, is fundamentally different from the preceding educational cycles. It would be unwise to create uniform, top-down, regulatory processes, such as credit ranges for the research-based PhD, or to regulate the status of doctoral candidates as students or employees,” she said.

"European universities should not be handicapped in their global competition for the best and the brightest talent in ways that their principal competitors are not.”

* The presidents who signed the declaration were from the Conference of the Directors of French Engineering Schools, the French Conference of University Presidents, the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, the German Rectors' Conference, the Rectors' Conference of Swiss Universities, Universities UK, and the Hungarian Rectors' Conference.

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