Research ethics now a strategic priority for doctoral schools

Research ethics and integrity has become one of the top strategic priorities in doctoral education in Europe, according to a landscape report published by the European University Association’s Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE), commissioned to examine progress in the reform or professionalisation of doctoral education and the strategic priorities ahead for the sector.

The report of the survey says this is one aspect that points to the increasing relevance of doctoral education for the implementation of research policies within universities.

“In particular, the importance attributed to research ethics and integrity is remarkable: several years ago, this topic rarely showed up in the debates and publications in this area. It shows how important the issue of research ethics and integrity has become for universities in a very short time.”

According to the report, the high priority given to research ethics indicates the increasing awareness of this issue in the institutions.

“Research ethics and integrity is a core value of universities as education and research institutions. Research misconduct can seriously harm their reputation, as well as that of future researchers and doctoral candidates themselves,” the report says.

The issue was second among the three most important strategic priorities for respondents. These were the funding of doctoral education, identified by 74% of respondents, followed by research ethics (70%) and attracting doctoral candidates from abroad (61%).

The report said it was no surprise that attracting international doctoral candidates was a high priority, due to the international nature of research activity, but as Eurostat data show, there is “significant inequality” in Europe when it comes to the number of doctoral candidates from abroad.

With findings gathered from more than 300 institutions across 36 countries in Europe, the report on the survey, Doctoral Education in Europe Today: Approaches and institutional structures, provides an overview of the deep transformation that has taken place in doctoral education over the past 10 years.

One of the most significant general findings, according to Dr Alexander Hasgall, head of the EUA-CDE and one of the authors of the report, is that there is “quite a wide variety” of approaches to organising and structuring doctoral education in Europe.

Fit-for-purpose approach

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach but more of a fit-for-purpose approach and so it very much depends on national and institutional context, but also on the discipline,” he told University World Newsthis week.

At the same time, while there is a lot of diversity in doctoral education, there are “strong communalities”, especially a “real understanding that doctoral candidates are early year researchers, not students, spending most of their time doing research”, he said.

So doctoral education in Europe is mainly research with everything else – transversal or soft skills training such as communications and project management – added on top, he said.

For him one of the most impressive findings was how much progress has been made along the lines of the Salzburg Principles, established in 2005 at the EUA seminar “Doctoral programmes for the European knowledge society”, held in Austria.

These included acceptance that at the centre of doctoral education is the advancement of knowledge through original research, that doctoral education lasts three to four years, the importance of diversity of doctoral programmes and the need to promote innovative structures and support mobility.

Doctoral candidates were for the first time considered to be early career researchers, able to follow different career paths, both in and outside of academia.

“What is remarkable is that, while in Europe there is no central steering of doctoral education, because universities have a high degree of autonomy in implementing these principles, we see they are still in line with them,” Hasgall says.

“So this shows that where you have a process that is bottom-up, where institutions come together and identify goals, it will reach a common base in the long-term.”

Doctoral education has come a long way since its beginnings, with the emergence of the first universities of Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, serving as licence to teach (docere).

It has developed into an academic degree that expresses above all the ability to conduct research, conforming to academic standards and presented through a dissertation memo or published articles.

Years of reform

The report focuses on the key results of years of doctoral education reform in Europe, which have been marked by the introduction of doctoral schools at many institutions and a significant increase in the number of doctoral candidates and doctoral graduates.

More specifically, it examines the balance between institutional responsibility and that of the individual supervisor, as well as the mechanisms that underpin the passage through the doctorate and towards future careers.

It also assesses the degree of change, asking how the doctorate today is different from that of a decade or more ago. The funding of doctoral education and the strategic priorities of institutions are other lines of questioning, among many others.

“The large response to the survey provides confidence in the findings but also indicates that institutions want to know where we stand on these and many other issues,” said Luke Georghiou, deputy president and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester and Chair of the EUA-CDE Steering Committee. “Europe now has a shared database that will enhance our understanding of doctoral education.”

The survey questions were developed by a research team at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent (CHEGG) of Ghent University in Belgium and were further developed by EUA and the EUA-CDE Steering Committee.

Fast-changing landscape

One of the most unexpected findings is how fast the doctoral education landscape has changed in the past 15 years, moving from a situation where perhaps 20%-30% of institutions had anything like a doctoral school or similar structure, to the situation now where 90% do, Hasgall said.

At the same time the perception of doctoral education’s role has changed fundamentally. “Today nearly all doctoral education institutions say they prepare future academics and scholars, but at the same time about half now tell you they are to a great extent producing ‘highly skilled knowledge workers’ and another 31% say they do that to some extent,” Hasgall said.

“It means now there is an overwhelming majority – 85% – who to some or a great extent understand that doctoral candidates are not only academics and scholars but also have other career options. This is quite an important finding, a fundamental change in perception, and it is very interesting to see how fast this change has come about,” he told University World News.