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LERU sets out best practice in QA for doctoral training

Universities should ensure that funded doctoral programmes are embedded in a strong research environment supporting candidates to work with rigour and integrity.

There should be strong university leadership signalling the importance of research and research training to the mission of the university, according to a new advice paper published last week by the League of European Research Universities, or LERU.

Governments and funders, meanwhile, should recognise the important role that quality assurance has in maintaining a high quality research culture. They should ensure that quality assurance processes of institutions where doctoral candidates are funded consider the quality of the research environment as well as the quality of research programme outputs, the paper says.

“The training of doctoral graduates is at the heart of the mission of research-intensive universities. Doctoral programmes within LERU aim to train the next generation of researchers to the highest skill levels in order to launch creative, critical and autonomous intellectual risk takers who will push back the frontiers of research,” the paper says.

“In addition, the modern doctorate needs to provide excellent training for roles beyond research and higher education, preparing doctoral graduates for a variety of careers that require deep rigorous analysis in public, charitable and private sectors.

“How can universities ensure that these objectives will be achieved? They do this by ensuring that they maintain doctoral training embedded in a strong research culture and through Quality Assurance, or QA, processes which scrutinise and enhance this culture and the activities,” the paper says.

The launch of the paper, Maintaining Quality Culture in Doctoral Education is the fourth time since 2007 that LERU has addressed doctoral training in Europe, having published Excellence in Research Training (2007); Doctoral Degrees beyond 2010 (2010) and Good Practice Elements in Doctoral Training (2014).

Virtuous circle

Other recommendations include that universities should have a doctoral education quality assurance system in place that considers the entire quality assurance cycle in a virtuous circle.

There are four crucial elements in this quality assurance method, the paper says. They are clearly stated expectations, transparent scrutiny processes, documented measurements, and effective channels for feedback and quality enhancement.

Reviews should involve parties not involved in each specific programme, the paper recommends.

The lead authors of the paper include Professor David Bogle, head of the University College London Graduate School, Professsor Jacqui Shykoff of the Doctoral School in Plant Sciences at Université Paris-Sud, and Professor Isolde von Bülow, head of the Graduate Center of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, or LMU Munich. Chief Policy Officer of LERU, Katrien Maes also supported the development of the paper.

The study analyses the elements of what is labelled a ”robust” quality assurance process laying the foundation for a sound ”quality culture” within doctoral training.

The recommendations explicitly do not focus on one single model for quality assurance but instead advocate a variety of good practices in the recognition of there being many ways of undertaking such quality measures based on national and institutional cultures.

The study endorses the ”innovative doctoral training principles” of the European Commission, but advises against the EU aiming at ”harmonising” or ”standardising”, ”let alone [trying to] regulate or prescribe doctoral QA, neither in its policy-making nor in its funding programmes”.

Recruitment practices

The report brings a wealth of information on practices in the recruitment of doctoral students, admission procedures, the rights and obligations of doctoral candidates and their supervisors, how to ensure a strong research environment, research integrity, programming to create a critical mass and learning outcomes and assessments.

For instance, it notes that since 1998 rights and obligations of stakeholders in doctoral education at all French universities are defined in the Charter of the Doctorate, which is a contractual and regulatory document signed by the candidate, the supervisor(s), the head of the lab, the director of the research school and the rector.

One example of an innovative practice is found at the University of Freiburg in Germany which in October 2014 created a post for a vice-rector for ”research integrity, gender and diversity”.

Lund University in Sweden utilises an "individual study plan which is a tool for planning, monitoring and progression of the doctoral candidates' graduate education”, which contains 12 check-off points outlining how the individual timetable for the doctoral degree should be structured, a plan that is revised at least once a year.

The LERU report is of great interest for anyone involved in work with doctoral training today. It illustrates not least the very diversified organisational structures at LERU universities.

For instance, LMU Munich has a Graduate Center; Freiburg an International Graduate Academy, Heidelberg University a Council of Graduate Studies while Utrecht University has seven graduate schools and a Board for the Conferral of Doctoral Degrees. University College London has a Doctoral Training Strategy Committee and Helsinki University has a vice-dean for postgraduate education who is chair of the Committee for Postgraduate Studies.

Impact on administrative staffing

The report does not indicate if the drive towards greater quality is also increasing monitoring functions and hence expanding the administrative bureaucracy at universities.

But Professor Bogle told University World News: "Quality processes do add bureaucracy but are embedded in university practices these days. To ensure high quality it needs to be watched and we do need to be accountable.

“The point the report makes is that there are many ways to do this and it is best if it works well with the way a particular university works and ties in to existing processes. Arbitrary externally defined processes add bureaucracy often without adding value.”

However, there is little discussion of the increasing use of supervisors from outside universities having the same standing in the supervision process as the internal supervisors, a model that is the basis for a successful programme – notably for Marie Curie Initial Training Networks with a comparably-high 10% success rate in Horizon 2020 programme applications.

Bogle said the report covers all types of doctoral training with the major component being the thesis. “Our view is that this is not different for those involving collaboration with industry in its wider sense or other partners. Universities are responsible for the standards of their degrees and so it is important that they set their standard.

“Those projects with industry are expected to be brought into the research environment of the faculty/department/institute/programme even if they spend a substantial amount of time with the industrial partner.

“Similarly many in the social sciences and physical sciences may spend substantial periods on fieldwork as part of their project but remain overseen by and linked to the home university, [which is] of course much easier these days with electronic communication. We all have mechanisms for involving industrial and other external advisors in the supervision process.”

Cross-disciplinary collaboration

Another Marie Curie success criterion, the extent of cross-disciplinary collaboration in research networks, which is so dear to politicians in the Bologna Process, is not discussed.

It would have been useful to hear some practice from the University of Cambridge in the report, having more than 7,000 postgraduate students and being one of the major recipients of grants for young researchers in the European Research Council programme in Horizon 2020.

Cambridge regularly performs an 'Institutional Review Assurance', where for example in 2013 a five-team investigating committee including two students wrote: ”[Postgraduate] students who met with the team commented that although they do not expect to be ’spoon fed’, the flow of information within departments was variable with some being more successful at fostering a sense of commitment than others. Some [postgraduate] students welcomed the way in which the graduate schools brought students from different disciplines together.”

Clear presentation

Thomas Jørgensen, deputy director of the European University Association, or EUA, and head of the Council for Doctoral Education, told University World News that the study offers "a clear presentation of the basics of quality assurance in doctoral education”.

He said: ”It corresponds very well to the work that the EUA has done in the area, and with what goes on in many institutions across the continent. The paper sets the scene well for the next logical step, which would be to look at the implementation of the whole QA cycle within institutions.

"In EUA, we tend to include the systemic level and look at how national systems work. In that context, any case study that shows how institutions take responsibility for QA is welcome.”

On 15 March there will be a breakfast event in Brussels where professors Bogle and Shykoff and other LERU representatives and a representative from the European Commission will participate in a discussion of the paper.
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