A key consequence of the Bologna Process ministerial summit in Berlin (2003) has been the increasing tendency towards placing third cycle studies – the actual link between the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area – under institutional responsibility through structured programmes.

In fact, according to the TRENDS 2010 survey, approximately two thirds of European higher education institutions have introduced structured doctoral programmes; as indicated by the ARDE 2012 survey, the percentage is reaching 80% in 2012.

Being both students and early stage scientists, doctoral candidates perform individualised original research, which is deeply dependent on their relationship with the supervisor. As stated in the Salzburg II Recommendations released by the European University Association in 2010, it is the practice of research that cultivates flexibility of thought, creativity and intellectual autonomy. Complementing this fundamental aspect, the overall reform in third cycle education introduces training in transferable skills, stimulates mobility, fosters inter-disciplinarity, and establishes a consistent quality assurance policy based on reliable indicators.

In this frame, and in order to be fully aligned with the overarching Framework of Qualifications for the European Higher Education Area, third cycle degree programmes need to be structured and transparent, while avoiding overregulation. Academic institutions are urged to ensure that their programmes endorse the above-mentioned innovative patterns; while facing the needs of the employment market, notwithstanding that industry has not yet developed sufficient absorption capacity to harness the potential of university-based research.

Training through research builds a mind-setting appropriate for many sectors and careers. In fact, the CAREER 2012 survey confirms that there is a remarkable coincidence among competences developed and appreciated by doctorate holders and those asked by enterprises. Nevertheless, more systematic initiatives also play a significant role in shaping the profile of doctoral candidates.

Third cycle taught courses are crucial for the individual professional development of doctoral candidates. According to the TREE 2008 survey, their content is usually specialisation-focused or research-oriented, but may as well be general. Lesser importance is given to modules on career development and ethical issues. Although a credit system is not always used, and assessment procedures are not often the case, these curricula ensure transparency and enhance mobility.

‘Taught courses’ is a generic term, which may include several types of organised initiatives, e.g. frontal lectures and intensive workshops on core research skills and/or key competences, encompassing a type of assessment; as well as activities performed by the student, such as seminars held in front of an informed audience or tutoring sessions, further the authoring of publications on proper research results.

Taught courses are best systematised in doctoral schools. It appears, however, that in European universities organised curricula constitute a priority solely in social sciences, economics or humanities, the policy for natural sciences and engineering restraining the imparted component to a support for research tasks.

As acknowledged in the Salzburg II Recommendations, the importance of the approach relies in the fact that actual outcome of a doctoral study is not simply the thesis, but rather the doctorate holder, as a person having developed a research mind-setting, along with the proficiency to combine pertinent knowledge, abilities and skills for confronting any particular situation. Acquired during the period spend in the third cycle, these competences deal with scientific and technical expertise in a well-defined area, with transferable core research skills, and with transferable personal and professional abilities. In fact, already in 2004 the relevant Dublin Descriptor (2004), integrated in the Framework of Qualifications for the European Higher Education Area, stated that:

Qualifications that signify completion of the third cycle are awarded to students who:

Have demonstrated a systematic understanding of a field of study and mastery of the skills and methods of research associated with that field;

2. Have demonstrated the ability to conceive, design, implement and adapt a substantial process of research with scholarly integrity;

3. Have made a contribution through original research that extends the frontier of knowledge by developing a substantial body of work, some of which merits national or international refereed publication.

According to the national reports on Bologna Process implementation and to the relevant national legal regulations, twenty-four countries in the European Higher Education Area operate with a hybrid structured/supervision-based scheme, and only thirteen have adopted a clearly structured setting. The taught component is awarded ECTS credits in thirty educational systems, while the totality of doctoral studies is fully expressed in credits in nine out of them, five more announcing a generalised use of ECTS credits without further law-bidden specifications. In one instance supervision-based doctoral studies are allocated ECTS credits, and in another a structured scheme is not applying any credit system. In parallel, the Diploma Supplement is regularly issued in thirty countries.

Although actual implementation might so far not always keep on with official legislation, the categorisation clearly reveals that most Bologna Process signatory countries are moving towards the introduction of the Credit Transfer and Accumulation System in the third cycle.

 

With the number of systematised third cycle studies steadily increasing, it is urgent that both the research component and the additional taught elements are understood, compared and visualised within mobility schemes, and towards the labour market. The ‘Bologna tools’ necessary to this goal have to be carefully adapted, since doctoral studies are a predominantly research-oriented degree. Hence, while ‘measuring’ them, the notion of workload and learning outcomes becomes more complex and multi-facetted.

 

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