So many aspirant doctors, so little time

EUA report uncovers global commonalities in PhD education. Elizabeth Gibney reports

October 4, 2012

Developing countries are striving to expand doctoral education, but may struggle to keep up with the demand for PhDs.

That is the conclusion of a European Universities Association report on the first comprehensive survey of trends in doctoral education across East Asia, Latin America and Southern Africa.

According to the study, published on 24 September, there is a striking convergence in national policies towards doctoral education both in those regions and within Europe.

Not only have the number of doctorates awarded surged, but countries and institutions across the world are seeking to boost them for the same reason - to develop society, Thomas Ekman Jørgensen, head of unit at the EUA’s Council for Doctoral Education and the report’s author, told Times Higher Education.

“We asked what the role of doctoral education is and you were not able tell Singapore from Tanzania: it’s the same way of thinking about it,” he said.

The relative growth in the numbers of PhDs awarded across the developing and developed world over the past six years has also been nearly identical, he said.

“Since 2004, you’ve seen 40 per cent increases in Europe, Latin America and the US. If we take Africa and Asia on top of that we would likely see the same numbers.”

Cooperation on Doctoral Education between Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe - published at the EUA Doctoral Week held at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute from 23 to September - says that both universities and governments are seeking to increase the number of academics holding PhDs.

But Dr Jørgensen warned that it may be difficult to retain doctorate holders in universities “if on top of that you want the knowledge transfer - PhDs in industry and in government”.

He also said that despite the strong (if often unfounded) discourse in the US and Europe about the lack of academic jobs for doctoral students, worldwide this was not a problem.

“What we saw was there’s not enough to go around. If [doctoral graduates] really want a job in the university sector, go to Brazil, Chile, Argentina or South Africa,” he said.

However, institutions in developing regions still needed to increase overall research investment to meet PhD demand, he added.

“In some countries we saw they had high numbers of admissions without a corresponding increase in graduation. So you have plummeting completion rates and we don’t really know why that is. What we can say is you just can’t invest in this as if it were undergraduate education.”

Another feature of the survey is that spending on doctoral education in the developing regions measured is much more concentrated than in Europe, particularly in Brazil, South Africa and the Republic of Korea (where half of all doctorates come from just two universities).

Governments across Europe seeking to concentrate research funding could learn from this model, Dr Jørgensen said.

“Concentration is in these countries’ investment strategies, but they award investment to the big universities to play a systemic role…They have a social mission to outsource their research capacity to universities that wouldn’t otherwise have it,” he said.

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