Collaborations build doctoral and research capacity

At the European University Association’s recent Doctoral Week event, a consortium of universities and university networks and associations led by the European University Association published the report CODOC – Cooperation on Doctoral Education between Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.

The report, the outcome of a two-year project, examines and compares developments in doctoral education in three regions – East Asia, Southern Africa and Latin America – and relates the findings to changes taking place in Europe.

It outlines a number of trends and convergences at the global level.

Doctoral education is capturing an increasingly prominent place in higher education and research policies. The world has seen a remarkable rise in the number of doctorates awarded (and probably even more in the number of doctoral candidates).

In OECD countries alone, the 2000s saw a 50% increase in doctorates awarded, while Brazil doubled its number and China quadrupled graduations over roughly the same period. Brazil now graduates a similar number of doctorates to that of France, and China is second only to the United States in this regard.

Many countries, regardless of their level of development, see knowledge and innovation as the road to prosperity. The language of the knowledge society can be heard from developing Africa to Singapore and Scandinavia, and one very tangible investment to boost knowledge has been in doctoral education.

Expanding university sectors is another driver of this development outside of Europe. Moreover, while the sector as such is expanding in many countries, universities are also working on upgrading their staff so that a higher proportion holds a doctorate.

The CODOC project included a survey asking about expected increases in the percentage of staff holding a doctorate.

The results were very robust, showing that universities across East Asia, Southern Africa and Latin America were heavily engaged in this process. The number of staff holding a doctorate has increased considerably over the past five years, and the trend is looking to continue.

While increasing doctoral holders among university staff is a clear trend, the report also showed the challenges faced by universities engaged in building research capacity.

Many universities, particularly in Africa and Latin America, already have problems recruiting and retaining enough doctorate holders for their own institutions. Moreover, there are fears that the capacity of universities in these regions to train more doctoral candidates is being strained; more research and more supervisors are needed.

The outcomes of the CODOC project – which is co-funded by the Erasmus Mundus programme of the European Commission – as reflected in the report, point to possible remedies.

These include collaborations across institutions to make better use of the capacity in several institutions; and more comprehensive funding schemes, including funding that will seek to support doctoral candidates as well as develop the research and supervisory capacity of institutions.


The report gives concrete examples, particularly of different modes of collaboration.

Many research-intensive universities in Europe engage in collaborations with universities in other regions. They often do this to further their own research by gaining access to, for example, areas of high biodiversity, specific geographical features such as seismic activity or particular populations.

However, these research-intensive universities are frequently also aware of the capacity-building aspect of such collaborations, if for no other reason than because they find that in order to make collaborations sustainable, they need to develop common ground in terms of defining good supervision, research ethics and good management.

Karolinska Institutet and the University of Bonn – both project partners – have examples of such explicit capacity-building programmes.

Generally, the report sees three areas of convergence in doctoral education: convergence in discourse, growth in doctoral education and collaborations.

The language of the knowledge society is surprisingly similar all over the globe, regardless of the level of development. In most places, knowledge is seen as the key to solving specific local challenges as well as developing society in general.

Doctoral education is central to this idea, as well-trained researchers are believed to supply the knowledge and innovative mindsets to bring society forwards. In this spirit a number of countries (for example, Malaysia and South Korea) have embarked on national projects to dramatically increase the number of doctorate holders both inside and outside academia.

The notion of knowledge has been another driver of growth globally. Despite the impressive growth in doctoral education, there are no signs that there is yet an over-production of doctorates.

The expansion and upgrading of universities still makes it possible to absorb new doctorate holders in many countries, and transition to more knowledge-intensive production in parts of Latin America and East Asia is likely further to increase private sector demand.

The bottleneck remains the capacity of universities in many places – a bottleneck that can be lessened by developing further collaborations focused on capacity building.

* Dr Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is head of unit, European University Association (EUA) Council for Doctoral Education. The full report can be downloaded here.