Challenges facing doctoral education

Some 200 university leaders, senior managers, researchers and policy-makers gathered at the University of Warsaw earlier in June for the sixth annual meeting of the European University Association’s (EUA) Council for Doctoral Education.

These meetings give all stakeholders working with doctoral education platforms to discuss current trends and future developments in European and global doctoral education. The theme of this year’s event was: “From student to researcher; are we on the right track?”

Discussions focused on the extent to which European doctoral education has been on the “right track” after a decade of structural changes. The past decade has seen major changes, with universities introducing doctoral schools and structured programmes.

The schools monitor the progress of doctoral candidates and the quality of supervision and research in doctoral programmes, said Lesley Wilson, EUA secretary general. At the same time, new legislation is being drafted or implemented in many countries, providing new requirements and challenges facing those responsible for doctoral education, while agencies for quality assurance and research assessment are showing more interest in the area.

The need to maintain the quality of doctoral education during a time of massification appears to be one of the most important challenges. In recent years, the number of doctoral students in Poland had almost doubled – to 40,000 – said Professor Marta Kiciska-Habior, vice-rector for student affairs and quality of teaching and learning at the University of Warsaw.

“We are still struggling with the outcomes of the process and are trying to improve the internal system of quality assurances. One of the problems is that there are no rules or guidelines on PhD supervision specified in the university regulations,” Kiciska-Habior said. “We do not have efficient tools to check or encourage the involvement of the supervisor.”

A newly completed Accountable Research Environments for Doctoral Education, or ARDE, project (led by the EUA) was demonstrated during the conference and confirmed that universities across the Europe were not yet fully satisfied with the procedures regarding supervision.

The meeting sought to take stock of the reforms and to determine if national legal frameworks as well as universities were ‘on the right track’ in transforming students into researchers. The participants generally agreed doctoral education was on the ‘right track’, said Thomas Jorgensten, EUA head of the unit responsible for the EUA Council for Doctoral Education.

Keynote speaker Francesc Xavier Grau, rector of Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain, highlighted how the establishment of doctoral schools had enabled universities to increase their capacity in terms of research output and outreach to other sectors. Doctoral candidates were particularly good at bridging the gap between basic research and innovation, Xavier said.
But several speakers warned that the large expansion in the number of doctoral candidates in many countries could potentially lead to overall lower quality. They called for safeguarding research excellence.

The conference discussions revealed that considerable differences existed across Europe in terms of approaches and challenges facing doctoral education. “There is a good common European dialogue on doctoral education, but there is also an opportunity to do more in terms of creating a shared vision on good practices in the future,” Jorgensten said.

* The EUA Council for Doctoral Education is an integral part of the EUA and was established in 2008. Its mission is to contribute to the development, advancement and improvement of doctoral education and research training in Europe.

You can read more about the sixth annual meeting here.