January 2009

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Comments on the results of the survey of doctorate degree holders in the 2003 and 2004 cohorts in Catalonia

Xavier Massó Pérez - Head of the Doctorate Degree Office, UPC

The results of the student surveys carried out in the Mirror programme, a joint project carried out in Catalonia, Sweden, Finland and Ireland, were released in the September 2006 bulletin. Just over two years later, the results of the survey of doctorate degree holders in the 2003 and 2004 cohorts in Catalonia are now being released, which, as to be expected, in overall terms coincide in certain aspects.

The first element that coincides in the results of both surveys is the high level of satisfaction with third cycle activities being carried out in Catalan universities, especially with the teaching staff in directing and supervisory activities. On the other hand, an outstanding feature in both surveys and one of the weakest aspects was the courses and their relevance to research being undertaken by PhD students.

Another aspect that coincides in both surveys was the excessive duration of doctoral studies, an aspect with direct repercussions for students later on in their academic career, and in the lack of job security in terms of stability and income. This fact raises the issue, as an initial consideration, whether the learning process in the third cycle should have a time limit, irrespective of the original nature associated with the research, and irrespective of the duration and requirements of the research projects that doctorate degree students are involved with.

The results also reveal the excessive dependence of research in Catalonia on the public system, which comes far short of the goal so often talked about of dividing up funding and efforts in research between sectors on a 2/3 and 1/3 basis. More time is still probably required for the results of the policies that, in certain research programmes, have been promoted in recent years to involve the private sector in research to be reflected in the surveys, although at the present time the results would appear to show that there is still a long way to go. The lesson is a clear one. Taking research-orientated studies in Catalonia does not imply an opportunity for improvement or professional recognition, except for in the higher education sector, where it is already a requirement, and it is therefore difficult to talk about this study cycle in terms of competitiveness in attracting students or resources.

With regard to the competitiveness of the Catalan system compared to others in attracting third cycle students, not too many conclusions can be drawn from the survey results. Unfortunately, the establishing of a highly competitive system has been impeded by the lack of definition of a model by the corresponding authorities in recent years in comparison to other European countries, where the adaptation and bringing into line of university education with the EHEA has taken place at a much faster pace and where, as a result, the learning model and resources allocated to doctorate degree studies began to be rethought at an earlier date.

All of these aspects should lead to reflection on the educational and organisational model for doctoral studies. One could affirm, from the results of the surveys, that the majority of research staff in training has the feeling that the learning content that can be acquired from a traditional learning model has already been acquired in previous study cycles, possibly from certain skills and very specific research methodologies. On the other hand, this group has the expectation that, in doctoral studies, it will have the opportunity to spend sufficient time exploring under tutorial supervision, although not excessively directed, by taking part in active research groups and with opportunities to participate in academic activities that will provide them with a constant exchange of knowledge and, just as important, that their efforts are offset by opportunities to develop a professional career.

This calls for an adequate resource allocation system for research that is based on confidence in Catalan institutions, and especially in the people and groups involved there. However, it also requires a new organisational model in the universities for doctoral studies, which supports the building of and gives impetus to the doctoral studies model and enables it to be viewed as a whole; which promotes the internationalisation and attraction of talent, grant funding, impetus for measures aimed at enhancing the efficiency rate of studies, appropriate employment for doctorate degree holders and the organisation of innovative academic activities based on the traditional model.

Recognition must also be given to the initiative resulting from the collaboration between the Agency and the universities’ social councils. In the case of doctoral studies, one could say that it is unfortunate that this has not happened before. Nevertheless, it is still not too late to request that, on the one hand, this survey does not remain as a one-off exercise in time, but that a periodic follow-up is made to enable the universities to introduce the culture of continuous improvement, and at this study level as well. On the other hand, that in subsequent occasions it can be more finely tuned, with questions that are aimed more at the particular characteristics of each group and their needs in the labour market, which is and must be different in terms of stability, sectors, salary thresholds, the applicability of their knowledge and, in a word, their social recognition.


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