Should doctoral mobility be more structured?

Doctoral education has been receiving increasing political attention over the last 10 years, and international mobility of doctoral candidates is an important part of the discussions.

In terms of training doctoral candidates, international mobility enhances their skills as researchers by expanding their networks and giving access to a larger research community. International mobility also develops intercultural communication skills, which are crucial for a number of careers within or outside academia.

The European University Association Council for Doctoral Education – EUA-CDE – held its Seventh Annual Meeting from 19 to 20 June 2014 at the University of Liverpool with the title “Doctoral Education: Thinking globally, acting locally”. The bigger issues and global trends in doctoral education were discussed, including the crucial issue of mobility across the globe.

European universities are well aware of the importance of mobility for doctoral candidates. In the EUA’s study on student and staff mobility, MAUNIMO, 69% of universities identified mobility in doctoral education as essential – the highest score of any group within the university.

Doctoral mobility is very different from mobility at the level of bachelor and masters. Generally, doctoral candidates move for research, to visit archives and laboratories or to do field work, which makes issues of credit recognition irrelevant – unlike for bachelor- and masters-level mobility.

This means that universities have the choice to either establish inter-institutional agreements to facilitate mobility or leave mobility to the individual doctoral candidate’s responsibility.

Individual needs

Many universities favour ad hoc mobility of doctoral candidates – the classic ‘go-when-you-want’ model. Doctoral candidates’ mobility depends on the requirements and needs of their research project and they can move without the constraints of a set curriculum.

They often use funding from their supervisor’s research project and this model has the benefits of being administratively simple to manage as well as being tailored to the individual needs of the doctoral candidate (although at times more to the needs of the supervisor).

There is a low institutional investment with high return in terms of research training and, as evidence shows, this also applies to publications.

According to several EUA surveys, ad hoc doctoral mobility is by far the most popular with universities. In the 2013 EUA survey of universities and the European Research Area, about 65% of the respondents gave this kind of mobility a high importance rating.

However, ad hoc mobility does not give much in terms of institutional development for the university. At the recent EUA-Council for Doctoral Education annual meeting, several speakers raised the question of whether ad hoc mobility of doctoral candidates was really enough.

This kind of mobility ignores the institutional benefits to be harvested, such as common development and learning from good practices in supervision, quality assurance or in professional development of researchers.

With ad hoc mobility, there is the risk of having less control over good research conduct in the destination institution, which would mean that any breach of research ethics or data management would fall back on the home university.

Integrated models

The alternative to ad hoc mobility is more integrated models. Some universities are enthusiastic about setting up highly integrated joint programmes, where all these issues have ideally been discussed between the institutions prior to any exchange of doctoral candidates.

In joint programmes, rules and procedures are aligned and a common understanding is established. This is particularly useful in capacity-building programmes, where the goal is to further institutional development.

Here, providing mobility scholarships without institutional support is not enough, as a speaker from the German Academic Exchange Programme – DAAD – underlined at the Liverpool conference.

The challenge of joint doctoral programmes is that they can be very difficult to administer and, unlike at the bachelor-masters level, the number of doctoral candidates is normally relatively low – a large programme might send out between 10 and 20 people a year.

Understandably, many universities feel that the effort is out of proportion with the gains. In the 2013 EUA survey mentioned above, about half the respondents gave a ‘low importance’ rating to joint doctoral programmes.

However, it is worth speculating whether more structured models of doctoral mobility are on the rise. Universities and their provision of training for doctoral candidates are under much more scrutiny than before, both from the public and from different external stakeholders, such as quality assurance agencies and research assessment bodies.

Building mobility on structured partnerships allows universities to ensure that they respond to the increased demands for accountability, such as the quality of provision and research environments at the destination institution and ensuring that mobility suits the doctoral candidate and not primarily the project of supervisors.

Structured partnerships provide protection against the risk of bad research conduct and unethical behaviour outside of the home institution.

As more and more attention is being paid to the issues of quality, ethics and institutional development, it would be logical for universities to invest in more formalised models of doctoral mobility.

The evidence for such a trend, however, remains to be seen.

* Dr Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is head of the Council for Doctoral Education at the European University Association. Click here for more information about the recent EUA-CDE Annual Meeting in Liverpool, including presentations.


Programmes to enhance mobility like the Universitas 21 joint PhD programme are great in what they are trying to provide. However universities that are members of such arrangements need to actually understand their roles. I am doing a U21 joint PhD between Australia and the UK and the UK university really has no idea about their responsibilities in the programme or a proper student support system. It feels as though some institutions want to be part of these programmes purely to look good on paper.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page