Increasing internationalisation in PhD education

A recent survey suggests that Norway boost its efforts to internationalise PhD education and includes the recommendation that for PhD dissertation evaluation, at least one member of the three-member committee should be drawn from outside Norway.

A June report, PhD Education in a Knowledge Society: An evaluation of PhD education in Norway, maintains that Norway’s PhD education system is of a high quality, being well funded and well organised and offering “very good working and learning conditions for PhD candidates, as well as good career prospects”.

The report was published by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) and commissioned by the Research Council of Norway on behalf of the Ministry of Education and Research.

It argues that since the previous similar evaluation in 2002, “Norway has taken a definitive step towards becoming a standardised PhD education system with a strong focus on monitoring quality and efficiency”.

Among the report’s key recommendations is “improving practices in international recruitment at the PhD level, and finding ways of reducing the administrative burden of international recruitment of PhD candidates”.

The report continues: “Norway needs to be thinking more broadly about how the internationalisation of PhD education is occurring and how it should be promoted – with a focus that goes beyond concerns for outward mobility and longer stays abroad.”

More foreign input into PhD evaluation

At the same time, the country is pushing to include more foreign academics on its PhD evaluation committees.

The NIFU report details how the researchers sent out a survey questionnaire to the members of PhD evaluation committees who are from outside Norway. The objective was to map how highly these ‘external members’ judge the quality of the country’s PhDs.

In the survey, which had a response rate of 79%, members were asked their opinion of the quality of PhD dissertations recently assessed.

Those surveyed were asked to rate quality in terms of a number of different factors: originality; depth and coverage; theoretical level; methodological level and skills in written presentation; contribution to the advancement of the field; and external (applied, societal, cultural or industrial) relevance. There were five response options, ranging from 'excellent' to 'poor'.

Overall, 20% of the respondents rated the survey elements ‘excellent’, with a further 40% rating them ‘very good’ and 25% to 60% evaluating them as ‘good’.

The quality aspect that was ranked highest was skills in written presentation, as either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ by two-third of the evaluators, followed by depth and coverage listed by 65% and originality by 60% in the excellent-very good category.

When broken down according to PhD dissertation evaluators from different regions, interesting patterns emerged from the survey responses: North American evaluators gave the Norwegian PhD theses better ratings than their European colleagues, who in turn were more positive in their responses than members from the other Nordic countries.

On how the thesis evaluated contributed to the advancement of the field, 48% of the Nordic evaluators said ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’, compared to 64% of those coming from the rest of Europe and 68% of those from North America.

When broken down according to academic field, PhD dissertations in the natural sciences and the humanities got the strongest ratings, while those in the social sciences, and agriculture or veterinary medicine, were ranked beyond average. Theses in engineering or technology and medicine or health received very high scores among the North American examiners.

The majority of the survey respondents said the assessment procedures were rigorous and fair to the candidate, but also more time-consuming than in other countries. In Norway a joint examiners’ evaluation report is required before the doctoral defence, which is not the case in most other countries.

Need for internationalisation in PhD education

In arguing the need for internationalisation in PhD education to be reconsidered, the NIFU report points out that “the world of science and academic labour markets are increasingly global”.

The report states that in Norway currently about 33% of PhD graduates are not Norwegian citizens, and in the areas of natural sciences and technology 73% of PhD programme units report having a majority of international PhD applicants, reflecting “increased opportunities for internationalisation in PhD education”.

The report concurs that the increasing international recruitment that is being seen in Norway at the PhD level is positive “but poses short and long term challenges for the higher education institutions”.

The report specifies: “Recruitment procedures and quality control of PhD applicants is important, as is the integration of international PhD candidates and finding efficient ways to promote international experiences for all Norwegian PhD candidates.”

One of the concerns raised by the NIFU report is the issue of “critical time” for the research training part of the PhD, and “the risk that too many and too diverse a set of demands are being placed on the PhD period, in a way that has negative long-term consequences for the development of science”.

The report concludes in this regard that: “Better integration between the master and PhD levels and further training in the post-doc period are international trends which might help to address such challenges in Norwegian PhD training.”