EUROPE: Universities agree PhD reform principles

Higher education institutions must develop a critical mass and diversity of research to offer high-quality doctoral education.

University structures dedicated to doctoral education should be developing ways that strengthen the research environment rather than simply creating more taught courses for doctoral candidates, the European Association of Universities (EUA) warned this week.

Internationalisation should be used as a tool to enhance the quality of doctoral education and develop institutional research capacity, the EUA also urged. This can be achieved through collaborative doctoral programmes, international joint doctoral programmes, or joint integrated curricula, joint committees and juries and joint degrees, but mobility should be an integrated part of the candidate's research project.

These were among a series of recommendations for improving doctoral reform in Europe, adopted by the EUA at its annual conference in Palermo, Italy, on 21-23 October, aimed at universities, governments and funding bodies. They were the result of a review of principles for doctoral reform adopted in Salzburg five years ago.

Lesley Wilson, EUA Secretary General, said: "These recommendations aim to make sure the momentum for doctoral reform that has been generated by the original Salzburg recommendations continues to gather pace in the coming years."

The recommendations are the result of a wide consultation among 185 member universities of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE).

Since the original Salzburg recommendations were made, there has been a mini revolution within European doctoral education with the number of universities setting up dedicated doctoral schools more than doubling in the past three years from 29% to 65%.

The consensus was that the core component of doctoral training is the advancement of knowledge through original research; doctoral candidates should be regarded as early stage researchers; and innovative institutional frameworks for supporting doctoral education should be promoted.

The EUA warned that universities and doctoral candidates are "still underfunded"; institutions need autonomy to be able to establish and be accountable for diverse structures with different research strategies and strengths; institutions must be able to independently develop their systems for quality assurance and enhancement within their national frameworks; and it is essential to build links with non-academic sectors to create awareness about the qualities of doctoral holders and build trust across sectors via flexible research collaboration between industry and universities.

The latter might include joint research projects or 'industrial doctorates'.

Key recommendations include that supervision of doctoral candidates must be a 'collective effort' with clearly defined and written responsibilities for the main supervisor, doctoral candidate, doctoral school and research group. Providing professional development to supervisors and developing a common supervision culture shared by supervisors, doctoral school leaders and doctoral candidates is paramount.

Training for doctoral candidates in transferable skills, including understanding the ethics of research, should be a priority.

Universities should develop specific systems for quality assurance based on the diverse institutional missions.

Wilson said Europe is now emerging as a global leader in reforming doctoral education following the dramatic increase in the number of dedicated doctoral schools.

"This reform has been central to the development of both the European Research Area and the European Higher Education Area in the last years. Further doctoral reforms will be vital for the sustainable development of Europe and essential for the global research community. We hope Salzburg II will be another key milestone in the reform process," Wilson said.

The Salzburg II initiative, which was undertaken by the EUA-CDE and aims to assess the implementation of the Salzburg principles, concluded that doctoral programmes are increasingly following three related broad 'clues for success', on which there is large consensus among Europe's universities.

o First, the doctorate is (and should be) based on original research; institutional structures for supporting doctoral education, such as doctoral schools, are to be seen as tools for institutional responsibility for providing a high-quality, inclusive research environment. It is important for universities to build on a critical mass of research to sustain doctoral education. This also means that doctoral education is profoundly different from the first and second cycles of tertiary education.

o Second, the individual aspect of doctoral education has been stressed. As researchers, doctoral candidates all have highly individual paths, because good research does not follow a straight and predictable course. The same applies to researcher careers; doctorate holders occupy very different positions, where their research mindset is highly valuable. Doctoral education must give ample space for and support to this individual development.

o Third, European universities have been the main driver of the reforms and can well be said to be at the forefront of doctoral education globally. It is important to take note of the progress made by universities and give them the autonomy necessary to continue developing doctoral education.