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Doubling of PhDs has not affected quality – Analysis

Despite more than doubling the number of PhD students, Danish PhDs have maintained their high quality, according to new analysis, with three out of four international supervisors judging them to be 'very good' or 'good'.

Nineteen out of 20 PhD graduates are employed, the fifth-highest rate among OECD countries, and 37% find a job in the private sector, placing Denmark top among OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – countries.

At the same time, there was a 19% increase in the proportion of international students between 2003 and 2010, and five years after graduation 41% of international PhD candidates are still living in Denmark.

The analysis, PhD Training and its Quality and Relevance (which contains a summary in English), was published on 3 March. It drew on an extensive set of data from different reports, including responses from almost 9,000 PhD students, supervisors and international researchers.

The findings underscore the success of the government strategy of significantly expanding the number of PhD students under a higher education and research internationalisation programme.

When Professor Sverker Sörlin of the Swedish KTH Royal Institute of Technology chaired an expert group for the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, publishing their report in 2006 with recommendations for the restructuring of PhD education, entitled A Public Good: PhD education in Denmark, immediate action was taken.

Due to an agreement in the Danish parliament named the “Globalisation Fund”, 0.5% of the gross national product or GNP was transferred to higher education and research internationalisation.

Over the following six years, this fund allocated DKK40 billion (US$5.7 billion) to a long list of activities, including the increased intake of PhD students both from Denmark and from abroad, prioritising students in technological sciences, engineering, the natural sciences and health sciences. Even when tuition fees for international students were introduced in Denmark in 2006, PhD students were exempted.

The intake of PhD students grew from 1,200 in 2003, to 1,500 in 2006, and 2,600 in 2010 as universities established 53 research schools in one of the largest investment programmes in Scandinavian higher education.

Questions asked

Eventually the rapid expansion led to questions being raised in the media asking if there now was an overproduction of PhD graduates and questioning whether the quality had fallen, as reported by University World News. There were also fears that a shortfall in Danish masters students would lead to a large share of PhD places going to international students, who tended to leave the country after completing their doctorates.

The new, 110-page analysis is based on six reports addressing the issue of quality in PhD training after 2003. They are:

  • A survey entitled Quality in PhD Education based on responses from PhD candidates and their supervisors.
  • A survey based on the view of international educators of Danish PhD theses.
  • A cost-benefit analysis on the yield for the private and public Danish economy.
  • A pilot study of the impact of Danish PhD theses in the health sector in 2003, 2010 and 2013 done by a research centre in Aarhus.
  • An analysis by Höjbjerre Bauer Schultz and Kubix on the labour market for privately employed PhD personnel.
  • An analysis by Epinion (2016) on the quality of the medical sciences PhD training.

Minister of Higher Education and Science Søren Pind has announced that a “PhD Conference 2017” will be held in Copenhagen on 6 April 2017 to discuss the findings.

This information package is a veritable goldmine for those interested in the major changes now taking place in doctoral training all over the world, not least due to the many tables and graphs used to present a picture on how Danish PhD training is seen from a comparative perspective.

The summary report presents the analytical design and methodology used, focusing in particular on the performance of PhD training from an international perspective.

There is one chapter on recruitment and admissions, which reports that the number of new students for doctoral studies doubled over 10 years and it includes a survey on PhD student motivations – for both Danish and international students.

One chapter delves into the quality of the PhD education and there is one chapter on the very interesting question of the reception of PhD graduates in the labour market, including surveys on their job satisfaction.

It reports that Denmark is now ranked number one in the OECD countries for the proportion of PhD graduates working in the private sector and that half of these graduates are working on development and leadership issues. There is a special chapter on PhD training within the health sector with several survey results.

Additional key findings include:

  • 81% of PhD candidates responding to a survey reported that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their PhD training;
  • 72% of supervisors said that in their opinion the level of the PhD training is of the same or better quality than before;
  • Fields of special strength in the expansion of PhD students are ICT, natural sciences, technology and engineering and health sciences, corresponding to the decision made with regard to the globalisation fund;
  • 90% of admitted candidates graduate – with the highest graduation rates found in the health sciences (95%) and lowest in the humanities (75%);
  • 60% of the supervisors surveyed are positive that international students are heightening the academic quality of the PhD training.

Professor Sörlin of KTH, who chaired the 2006 Danish government expert group, told University World News: “It is in general a very satisfactory development and it confirms our assumption in the 2005-06 evaluation that it is a sound and future-focused investment for a society to expand PhD education.

“These results also show, as we predicted, that it was possible to undertake this without losses in quality. It is especially good to see that industry and the private sector are taking on more PhD candidates and are also hiring the graduates to an increasing degree.”

Prioritisation taken 'too far'

However, he said the prioritising of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields had been taken “too far” and was “not something that we recommended”.

He said: “We argued for a broad lifting of PhD training across all fields. Humanities and social sciences are equally important for a sound societal development, and competences in these areas must be secured for users in media, organisations, civil society, public agencies, and also the private sector and industry.

“Critical, reflexive research in the human sciences is becoming even more important given the worrying social developments we see in many parts of the world today, and the presence of PhDs in leadership and key positions in all sectors of society is one of the means to secure a solid anchoring in rationality and enlightenment.”

Lars Qvistgaard, president of Akademikerne – the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations – which has 313,000 members, said in a press statement that the proportion of PhD candidates using their capacity for research and development in the private sector was actually small compared to the potential it has. But increasing the share is a challenge to which private industry itself has to contribute.

“Businesses have to be better at seeing what the PhD candidates can do and to use their competence, not only to strengthen research but also their analytical skills and innovative strengths,” Qvistgaard said.

Stefan Hermann, rector of Metropolitan University College, Copenhagen, which educates students in professional degrees in the health sciences and welfare, technology, leadership, pedagogy and social work, told University World News he was glad that Danish PhD education had kept its quality. “With such a significant quantum jump, this was not a given beforehand.”

However, he said a higher number of PhD recruits should target a career outside the universities because only a minority today can obtain tenure. They should be working in institutions where research is not the main task.

He also said he would like to see more PhD careers “built on a realisation of professional interests more than academic ones”.

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