Opening China’s PhD trapdoor should remain a last resort

Downgrading doctoral candidates to a master’s track raises questions about admissions and supervision standards, says Zhang Ruomei

May 9, 2021
A locked trapdoor illustrating potential downgrade of Chinese PhD students to a master’s programme
Source: iStock

China’s policy of downgrading struggling PhD candidates to a master’s degree has recently been the subject of renewed public debate after the Ministry of Education called on universities to implement it.

Back in 2013, the ministry vowed to tighten postgraduate evaluation and transfer students to a master’s programme (or simply hand them a master’s degree) if their qualification exam results, dissertation proposals or mid-term evaluations were not deemed satisfactory for doctoral study. Since then, many institutions have started using the mid-term evaluation in particular as the basis for assessing who should be downgraded. So why are the authorities reiterating the policy shift? What challenges are instructors facing in implementing the system?

There are two fundamental motivations for the policy. First, the number of enrolled PhD candidates is growing by an average of 4 per cent every year; in 2019 it grew by a full 9 per cent. The country needs more highly qualified workers, but obtaining them isn’t as simple as enrolling more people in PhD programmes regardless of their ability to complete them. This is illustrated by the fact that China’s PhD graduation rate (the number of students who complete within the standard three years) dropped from 43.8 per cent in 2009 to 35.9 per cent in 2018. Giving an early exit route to those unlikely to make the grade is intended to improve the quality and efficiency of doctoral training in this context.

Second, research indicates that the threat of downgrading can motivate students to finish tasks within the specified period. Many institutions state in their programme descriptions that the mid-term evaluation will be used to screen candidates, with the purpose of encouraging students to focus on studying and delivering on time.

But the policy is not as draconian as it might first appear. It can be implemented in a flexible and context-dependent way. For instance, students who have had problems with their supervisors can be given extra time or offered the chance to pass a second assessment. And judgments can be based on multiple periodic evaluations rather than a single mid-term evaluation. As a result, only a small number of doctoral students, in practice, have been required to downgrade to master’s degrees. The ministry’s call to implement the policy might be interpreted as indicating that officials think those numbers should increase.

Improving the quality of doctoral programmes is not merely a matter of forcing out more underperforming students, however. If the downgrading system is to work, clearer definitions of the responsibilities of students, supervisors and teaching staff are needed. If a student is not capable of doctoral work, they should not progress. But if their supervisor is incompetent or negligent, it should be stipulated that they can switch to another supervisor.

Moreover, universities need to improve their initial screening of candidates. If students are found in the mid-term evaluation to have serious issues in adapting to PhD training, it raises the question of why these problems were not detected in the admission process. If significant numbers of students are not making the grade, the institution in question should review its admission requirements to ensure that its recruitment is fair and reflects students’ abilities.

After all, forcing someone to terminate their doctoral studies is a big deal that damages not only the student but also the supervisors. This is particularly true in the humanities and social sciences because each supervisor in these disciplines is generally restricted to taking on one doctoral student per year. Given the funding, time and human effort that go into doctoral projects, it would be a very difficult decision for institutions to suggest that students in these disciplines give up their projects and enrol in a master’s programme instead.

What to a distant government official can look like increased efficiency appears very different when the personal consequences of failure come into focus. Even as they strive to improve the quality of their doctoral programmes, Chinese universities must do everything they can to ensure that the downgrading route remains a last resort.

Zhang Ruomei is a research assistant at the Institute of Public Policy, South China University of Technology. The article was translated by Liu Jing.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: China’s PhD trapdoor is ajar

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