EUA project calls for transparency in PhD programmes

Universities should be more transparent about what they offer through PhD programmes, to better allow students to compare doctoral studies across Europe, Thomas Jørgensen, author of the recently concluded Accountable Research Environments for Doctoral Education (ARDE) project told University World News in Brussels.

If doctoral candidates understand what is available regarding career development resources, their research environment, funding and mobility options, it should be easier to choose between PhD programmes across Europe, said Jørgensen, who leads the European University Association (EUA) Council for Doctoral Education.

“With this project, we are not advocating harmonisation; we are advocating transparency,” he told University World News in Brussels.

“You don’t need very sophisticated criteria or some kind of common template,” he added, noting that he believes this would be mystifying rather than transparent. “We know that from the rankings.”

Jørgensen supports the retention of diversity among doctoral programmes across Europe, notably in allowing innovation in their governance.

“Of course you need to have good research, good governance, you need to be professionally managed, but this can be done in many different ways,” he explained. “You shouldn’t have one set of criteria.”

The ARDE project wanted to demonstrate how quality assurance for doctoral education has been implemented in European universities over the past decade.

The project results show that doctoral education, which has been mostly based on a traditional model of personal relations between supervisor and supervisee, has moved since 2007 towards a model of professional management that also includes quality assurance.

However, according to Jørgensen: “There are still certain places where you actually don’t have any formal quality assurance”, where doctoral education follows the traditional model.

“And then of course you can’t do very much in terms of quality assurance because the institution doesn’t know the doctoral candidates, doesn’t how many it has and it has no idea if supervision is working or not,” Jørgensen explained.

“That’s increasingly a thing of the past,” he added, noting that more and more formal procedures are in place to assess quality of doctoral studies.

In German-speaking countries the traditional model and the new model of professional management of doctoral studies coexist, according to information provided by Jørgensen.
About 61% of the universities surveyed by the ARDE project said the supervision of doctoral candidates was systematically monitored.

But large differences existed between participating countries: for instance, 20 out of 22 British universities said they monitored supervision, while six out of seven German ones said they did not.

The ARDE results are based on responses from 112 universities in the EUA membership.

“Since the respondents were, to a large extent, research-intensive institutions with many doctoral candidates, it covered about 20% of the 600,000 doctoral candidates in the EU,” the final project report states.

With 22 respondents, British universities were an important part of the sample, followed by Italy, with nine universities responding, and Spain with eight. Universities from Germany, Russia, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, Ukraine and Greece also participated in the survey, among others.

Despite the value of diversity, the project’s conclusions do warn that there is a risk of uncoordinated assessment of PhDs, with different institutions offering different evaluations of the same doctoral studies programme.

“I don’t think we have a European bullet-proof way of solving this,” stated Jørgensen, noting that he would at least like to see a dialogue at national level between those involved in these evaluations: research assessment agencies, quality assurance agencies and funders, who could then agree on a common way to evaluate PhD programmes.

For Jørgensen, this is a very important first step. “If then there is a basis for a European dialogue about this, it would of course be very welcomed,” he said. “But I don’t see us being at that stage.”