Increasing requests for joint and double degrees

Increased requests for joint and double degree programmes are encouraging South African universities to address policy vacuums and join the growing number of institutions around the world offering such degrees – as a way to deepen international partnerships, attract top international students and better prepare students for a globalised future.

According to Dorothy Stevens, assistant director of the postgraduate and international office at Stellenbosch University, joint degree offerings are a relatively new form of international education for South Africa that have highlighted the absence of adequate internationalisation policy instruments at both the institutional and national levels.

They have also presented a range of challenges around the very definition of a joint degree programme, as well as quality assurance, certification and issues around compliance with national legislation.

Requests for joint degree offerings – from students, faculty and institutions – were definitely growing, she said.

Today, Stellenbosch offers seven international joint PhD programmes with five in the pipeline. There are two double masters degrees in place with a third in the pipeline. Partner countries include Scotland, France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands.

Addressing delegates at the QS-MAPLE conference held in Durban last week, Stevens said the double degree (a partially shared study programme) and joint degree (entirely shared study programme) were a key component of Stellenbosch’s internationalisation strategy.

They provided the university with an opportunity to facilitate cooperation beyond traditional exchange programmes, formalise investments in relationships and give recognition for contributions. The initiative also recognised the benefits of such offerings to the academic experience of students and researchers.

While European universities have been offering joint programmes since the 1990s, the idea of joint offerings is increasingly being recognised as a global trend.

A 2011 report Joint and Double Degree Programmes in the Global Context, produced by the Institute of International Education and Freie Universität Berlin, found that 95% of nearly 250 respondents in 28 countries said they wanted to develop more joint and double degree programmes.

Nearly two-thirds of institutions reported that new degree programmes had only been launched in the past decade.

Stevens said one of the biggest challenges facing her institution had been “incompatibility between national educational and legal systems”, with some being more compatible than others. However, she hastened to add that such constraints were not “insurmountable.”

“There is tremendous willingness to resolve these incompatibilities within the context of academic cooperation,” she said.

She described the value of such degrees as “numerous and various”.

“There may be special funding opportunities attached. Special skills and capacity development foci give formal recognition for existing relationships. It is beneficial to our reputation to partner with prestigious institutions, and may give access to unique facilities and expertise,” she told University World News.

Stevens said she could not comment comprehensively on the progress of other South African universities in developing joint offerings, but a survey of the field was is in the pipeline.

However, she said that Stellenbosch University had taken the lead in terms of policy development. “We have researched the subject and sought the advice and input of both the Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education.”

That process has produced an approved policy that is “underpinned by all the quality assurance practices and processes and adheres to national regulations.

“In respect of national policy, there is a need to give greater substance to the matter of joint and double degrees, but we have begun the conversation. In the rapidly changing world of international education, it is always a challenge to keep abreast, and so it is probably more a case of us needing to catch up than a question of actual bottlenecks,” she said.

Stevens said that despite some initial caution, Stellenbosch had over time become more enthusiastic about joint and double degree programmes as a valuable expression of internationalisation, global partnerships and transnational education.

“We’ve learned a lot in resolving practical matters and are committed to ongoing policy development.”