Redefining the Doctorate

As part of the Rugby Team group investigating skills embedding through the Roberts Skills training agenda the National Postgraduate Committee is involved in looking at the PhD in the changing environment of higher education.

With pressures from Europe and internally with quality assurance the role, function and purpose of the PhD are under question.

Chris Park has produced a draft paper examing the PhD and considering the challenges it faces. The NPC is involved with this project by gaining student feedback and student opinion on the PhD and its use.

A brief summary of the report is included below:

Changing Environment

QAA Code of Practice

RCUK Joint Skills Statement

Roberts Review and Roberts Funding.

Emphasis on employability and career development

Bologna Agenda

Indirect pressures to the role of the degree rather than a clearly defined study of the degree itself.

No widespread concern about the quality of doctoral education, either in academic quality or the research degree programmes that underpin it.

Tension over product (producing thesis) and process (developing the researcher) and between timely completion and high quality reseach.

Gap between what employers are seeking from PhD and what universities are producing.

Stakeholder perspectives

No one group has responsibility for defining what a doctorate is and what form it should take.

Stakeholders for national debate:

  • The funding councils,
  • The Quality Assurance Agency
  • The Research Councils
  • The National Postgraduate Committee
  • UK Council for Graduate Education
  • Universities UK and Guild HE
  • UK GRAD and the Rugby Team
  • Higher education institutions
  • Employers
  • The European Universities Association
  • EURODOC (the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Young Researchers).

Need to consider wider environment internationally.
Australia questioning the capacity of the doctorate to respond to a long list of challenges.

USA thinking on the current system and ability of it to function effectively or not they see oversupply of doctoral candidates for the academic job market and also problems recruiting more minority groups.

Europe. In Nordic countries drop out rates are high. Harmonisation of higher education systems does suggest however trend towards a common international doctorate.

Three Key drivers of change to the UK doctorate

Sustaining the supply chain of researchers, preparation for employment, and internationalisation.

Sustaining the supply chain of researchers
Vital for commodity of research and source of labour in the new economy. Also supply chain of doctoral students necessary for health of academic disciplines replacing staff and maintaining the vitality and research momentum in disciplines.

Key issues include recruitment, funding, efficiency, and cost effectiveness, the status of researchers, and the growth of interdisciplinary and applied research.

Preparation for employment
There is a need to consider the quality of postgraduate students insofar as fitness for purpose.

Key issues relating to the doctorate as preparation for employment include the doctorate as a labour market qualification, the expectations of doctoral candidates, expectations and requirements of employers, transition and mobility.

One third of doctoral students pursue academic careers, the rest employed in a wide variety of jobs mainly across the corporate government and not-for-profit sectors.

Transition period from academy to the workforce considered too long in UK.

Increasing global competition in recruitment of doctoral students, and increasing pressure to harmonise with proposed European models of the doctorate, informed particularly bu the Bologna agenda.

Bologna recognition of three cycles: 3 year undergraduate, 2 year masters, 4 year doctorate.

Responses in the UK

Doctoral education has become more formalised over the last decade procedures for granting Research Degree Awarding Powers, institutional regulations and definitions, national framework and expectations, the development of doctoral programmes and Graduate Schools, and supervision.

Skills Development and Research Training

The formal requirement of training for generic skills development has thrown up a number of themes; including the doctorate as training, the development of research training programmes, integration of training into the doctoral experience, and assessment of the doctorate.

Diversity of Awards

Increasing number of doctoral degrees tailored to particular niche markets. Issue of comparability of quality and standards, particularly because some of the new doctoral models incorporate elements such as taught modules, work-based learning, and novel forms of output rather than traditional thesis.

Key themes in the debate:

Purpose: what is the doctorate for, or what needs does it serve? Within this over-arching theme sit a number of important questions, including

a) Is the doctorate really about the product (thesis) or the process ( developing the researcher). Implications on how time is spent during degree and how degree is examined.
b) Is the doctorate about education or training? How important are research training and the development of generic skills compared with actually doing the research and learning more about the subject.
c) Should the doctorate be broad or specialised? Is the profileration of different models of the doctorate producing graduates with experiences that are too specialised, compared with the traditional PhD.
d) Should there be greater uniformity in the format of the doctorate, and in the doctoral student experience, within and between HEIs in the UK, and with universities elsewhere (particularly Europe, Australia, and North America).
e) Should more attendtion be paid to issues of equity and widening participation in the UK doctorate? Most national strategic decision-making (and funding) is dominated by the big science ,pde; pf research, and it privileges the full-time fully financed research student. How can the needs of part time and distance students be taken into account?

Supply chain: how can the supply chain of well-trained and appropriately experienced doctoral graduates be sustained? The two key elements within this theme are
a) How can the recruitment of doctoral students in the UK be sustained and improved, given funding constraints and student debt in the UK, and increasing global competition for well-qualified applicants.
b) How can the employability of doctoral students be enhanced? How can they acquire the right mix of skills, competencies and experiences to make them more attractive to appropriate employers? How can the transition between being a doctoral student and adding real value to their employer be made shorter, easier and less stressful?

Funding: what are the implications for research funders of the changing context of doctoral education in the UK? A number of important questions sit within this broad theme, including
a) Is it appropriate to increase the availability of funding to doctoral education, which would make it possible to increase the number of full time doctoral students in the UK?
b) Is it appropriate to concentrate research funding in a small number of institutions in order to meet critical mass, reward and promote excellence, and ensure greater strategic management of doctoral activities.
c) Are the resources currently being invested in doctoral education in the UK being used in the most effective ways? What do institutional submission and completion rates reveal about variations in efficiency, and what do these variations imply? Are institutions taking into account the full economic cost of their doctoral programmes when they make strategic decisions?
d) What proportion of national GDP should be invested in research and development in order to make the nation competitive in world markets?
e) Do the research councils, which fund about a third of doctoral students, exert a disproportionate influence on the nature of doctoral education in the UK?

Doctoral student experience: in what ways are the current and emerging drivers of change having an impact on the nature and quality of the student experience? Particularly important here are the questions -
a) Should doctoral students be defined and treated as students (as in the UK currently) or employees (with attendant rights and responsibilities)?
b) In what ways, and how quickly, might the European Charter for Researchers change the way in which doctoral candidates are defined and treated?
c) In what ways are the development of Graduate Schools, Research Degree Programmes and Research Training Programmes improving the quality of the doctoral student experience?
d) In what ways is the revised QAA Code of Practice improving the quality of the doctoral student experience?
e) In what ways are part time and distance students disadvantaged by current institutional provisions and arrangements?

Nature and dissemination of research: how might the demands and expectations of the new Knowledge economy impact upon doctoral education in the UK? For example
a) How can doctoral programmes in the UK become more applied and inter-disciplinary in the types of research they cover?
b) How can UK doctoral programmes increase the amount of knowledge transfer that doctoral students and graduates engage in?

Quality assurance: how effectives are current systems for assuring the quality and standard of UK doctoral awards? In particular
a) How appropriate are the current QAA level descriptors for postgraduate awards in general, and for doctoral awards in particular?
b) Given the growing diversity of doctoral awards in the UK, how can we make sure that all are operating at the same academic standard, and that they produce graduates with similar qualities and competencies?
c) What does the Bologna agenda imply about the suitability of the UK doctorate in a European context? Are learning outcomes more relevant and important than the period of registration in determining whether the doctoral programmes meet European expectation?

Autonomy, responsibility and accountability: given that individual universities approve their own regulations and award their own degrees, albeit in ways that informed by and aligned with formal national requirements, to what extent is convergence on a standard type of doctoral education inevitable or to be welcomed? This question can be posed at two levels
a) Must every institution met fully all of the formal expectations both implicit and explicit in the national frameworks such as the QAA Code of Practice, the Roberts Agenda, and the RCUK (2001) Joint Statement of Skills Training Requirments? What sanctions would be appropriate if a particular institution failed to meet a particular external expectation or requirement?
b) Must all UK institutions revise their doctoral programmes to fit the expectations and requirements of the Bologna Agenda? Again, what sanctions would be appropriate if they failed to do so? What are the implications for HEIs across the UK of the development of the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area? What are the implications for doctoral education in the UK of the development of the European Doctorate?

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