Introduction to Third Cycle (Doctoral) Studies as part of the Tuning ‘Process’

 Tuning and the Third Cycle. An Introduction.  (34 Kb) 

- Introduction
- Research and social responsibility
- Third cycle studies
- Beyond principles
- The Subject Area as focal point



“Have Itaca always in your mind,
arriving there is your target,
but, do not hurry the journey.
It is better that this extends for long years
And in your old age you arrive into the island
With all you have gained in the way,
Without expecting that Itaca will enrich you”

Konstantinos Kavafis

This quotation is taken from the beginning of a doctoral thesis on VIH (*) and highlights some of the questions never to be solved: what is really of relevance, the route or the arrival, personal enrichment or service to society, the process or the outcome. These deliberations can immediately be followed by the question why these should be seen as alternatives. Why not as angles of a multiphase reality that research helps to clarify how much of the unknown remains hidden.

After a journey of eight years many of the hundreds of academic experts involved in the Tuning Project might debate whether the significant outcomes achieved are more of relevance than the process of joint reflection and debate that they underwent, reaching out and involving thousands of colleagues, students, graduates, employers and other stake-holders in the process.

Much has been said in previous Tuning publications about the first two cycles of the Bologna Process. Much emphasis has been laid on the design of curricula, the use of the concepts of learning outcomes and competences, the transition of ECTS from mainly a transfer system to a transfer and accumulation system, approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, the shift from a staff oriented to a student centered approach and the quality enhancement of degree programmes in terms of process and content. However, as part of this Tuning “process”, the acquisition and development of knowledge and understanding of the subject area as well as related subject specific competences has always been paramount.


Research and social responsibility
Given the role of universities – the further development and transfer of knowledge – also research as a topic played a role either in the background or at the forefront, depending on the issues discussed. As the project progressed more and more attention was explicitly given by its members to the role of research in higher education degree programmes. Although students are expected to develop their skills for doing theoretical and/or more applied research in all phases of the educational process, this is mostly applies to the third cycle.

Tuning has also raised awareness about the importance of social responsibility and civic awareness as key competences to be developed as part of higher education training, besides preparing for the labour market. Students who have the privilege to be educated at the highest possible levels, are expected to play a leading role in society after their graduation. This fact has implications for higher education programmes and the competences to be trained. People in leading and coordinating roles are expected to be critical and self-critical regarding developments in society and their immediate social and professional environment. A knowledge based society requires (high) levels of abstract thinking, analysis and synthesis to identify, pose and resolve problems.

By including the doctorate in the Bologna Process, the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area have been connected and related to the Lisbon Strategy, i.e. the attempt to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world. From its launch in 2000-2001 the project Tuning Educational Structures in Europe has identified - as one of the major goals for European Higher Education institutions - to prepare students better for their future role in society. By focusing on key notions as employability and citizenship and linking these to the profiles of study or degree programmes, Tuning has developed a methodology to (re)design degree programmes with meets both the objectives of the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Strategy .

In its first two phases (2000-2004) Tuning has drawn attention to not only the importance of subject specific knowledge and skills, but also to the importance of more generic or transferable skills which are of relevance for any mode of learning. To be able to involve all stakeholders in the learning process better, Tuning has chosen a language which is understood by society as a whole. By stakeholders the higher education world (students, academics and supporting staff) as well as professional organizations, employers and employees are meant. Special emphasis has been laid on the notion of becoming and being competent. Competent implies that a person has required a set of competences to perform his or her tasks in an effective way. The development of competences of a learner in whatever setting (formal, informal and non formal) is central to the Tuning approach. Tuning distinguishes subject specific competences (knowledge, understanding or insight and skills) and generic competences (general academic skills, abilities and attitudes). This distinction is of crucial relevance for all three Bologna circles: the first cycle or bachelors, the second cycle or masters, but also the third cycle or doctorate or PhD. For each of the cycles sets of competences can be identified that should be included in degree programmes. In recent years much attention has been given to the notion of the outcomes of a learning process. For Tuning "learning outcomes" are defined as level of competence to be achieved. Competences represent a dynamic combination of knowledge, understanding, skills, abilities and attitudes. Fostering competences is the object of any educational programme. Competences are formed in various course units and assessed at different stages.


Third cycle studies
The main topic discussed in this publication is the doctorate. In recent years the third cycle has been put high on the agenda of European higher education. The European Commission, by publishing its communications about the future role of higher education institutions, the European University Association (EUA), by setting up different projects and by organizing European wide conferences, as well as national Conferences of Rectors and organizations of universities like the Coimbra Group and UNICA , have drawn attention to the organization, role, structure and funding of the third cycle in more general terms. Emphasis has been laid on the conditions or principles that should underlie all doctorates and their organisation rather than the actual learning to be achieved. This being said, the work done so far is of extreme importance. In particular, we should be grateful to the EUA for identifying a list of ten principles for the doctorate, which are the outcome of a Bologna seminar held in Salzburg in February 2005 . These principles can be summarized as follows: advance knowledge by contribution to original research without neglecting requirements for employability, meet new challenges and prepare for appropriate career perspectives, respect diversity on the basis of quality and sound practice, acknowledge that doctoral candidates are early stage researchers, guarantee transparent arrangements for supervision and assessment, achieve critical mass for doctoral programmes through co-operation, set an appropriate timeframe for a doctorate, develop innovative structures to accommodate interdisciplinary study and the training of transferable skills, offer possibilities for well structured interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral mobility and international co-operation and, lastly, ensure appropriate and sustainable funding for doctoral studies.

Naturally Tuning supports these principles. However, it has to be acknowledged that these key features have not yet been implemented to the full in the vast majority of European higher education institutions. It seems obvious that applying these principles requires well defined and organized structures. In the article “Doctoral Programmes in Europe” the authors Sandra Bitusikova and Lesley Wilson distinguish two existing models: graduate schools, including doctoral candidates and often second cycle students and doctoral and research schools which include only doctoral students . Wide experience with both structures has been built up in a growing number of countries during the last decade. The advantages of such schools are obvious as Bitusikova and Wilson show. However, the successes of these structures stand or fall with the commitment and expertise of those who are running it and/or are actively participating in it. This is true not only for the activities initiated within the framework of such schools but also -- and in particular -- for the actual doctoral programmes offered. Reality shows us that these training programmes are still the weak(est) part in many schools, which is not surprising given the difficulties many departments, schools, faculties and higher education institutions have had and still have with regard to the implementation of the first two Bologna cycles.


Beyond principles
A list of principles is clearly insufficient to make doctoral programmes fit for purpose. Every higher education institutions is trying to find its own way - in its given cultural and educational environment - to find answers to the challenges created by the double role of doctoral studies. On the one hand they contribute considerably to the research taking place in an institution, on the other hand they are supposed to prepare the brightest young people for their role in society. These objectives are not easily made compatible. Many researchers still lay emphasis on the first objective and are less interested in the second one. This attitude is understandable, given the tradition of doctoral studies, but it is no longer appropriate today in the context of a growing number of doctoral candidates and holders of doctoral degrees. In the past most doctors found employment in higher education institutions or in organizations of which doing fundamental and/or applied research was their core business. Given the number of doctoral candidates universities are expected to educate at present, this will be less and less the case in the future. This implies that career opportunities for these highly educated young people are and should be a concern of governments in general and of universities in particular.

This, however, requires different approaches and strategies than have been implemented so far. The EUA, the professional organization of European research universities, realises this. For obvious reasons a project was initiated in 2005 entitled From Innovative Doctoral Training to Enhanced Career Opportunities (DOC-CAREERS) as a follow-up of the EUA Doctoral Programmes Project . According to the EUA “this new study will explore the relationship between doctoral training programmes and career development and employability prospects for doctoral candidates. It aims to underline the need to incorporate demands from a highly diversified labour market directly in the planning of doctoral programme structures; introduce case studies among employers to highlight such demands; and focus on mobility as an inter-sectoral as well as a cross-border activity”. The outcomes of this project are expected to be published in 2008. Without any doubt they constitute an important new contribution to the development of doctoral programmes in general. The EUA clearly deserves credit for making us aware of the importance of the third cycle programmes as an integral part of the Bologna Process.

As mentioned above, also other organizations deserve credit for their work done so far. We single out the UK Quality Assurance Agency for the Higher Education (QAA), which already in 2004 published a code of practice that also covers postgraduate research programmes. Also the German Rectors Conference, the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), has contributed to the debate by organizing a conference in June 2006. The outcomes of this conference were published in 2007 . All organizations mentioned have emphasised that a key feature in doctoral programmes should be the further development of transferable skills. Bitusikova and Wilson state that “transferable skills development should be an integral part of first, second and third cycle programmes. The main goal at the level of the third cycle should be to raise awareness among doctoral candidates of the importance of both recognizing and enhancing the skills that they develop and acquire through research, as a means of improving their employment prospects both in academia and on the wider labour market”. This statement is very general. The lack of indications about how to transform it into concrete action is typical of the level on which the discussion been carried out so far. Many players stipulate the importance of generic competences in third cycle studies in particular in relation to enhancing prospects for employability at a reasonable level, but they do not really acknowledge that this will have consequences for the structure and content of doctoral programmes. The key question is whether generic competences should be formed explicitly at third cycle level, and if so, how can this be done. Tuning not only thinks that this is a necessity and indeed an obligation for universities; it also offers an approach, a methodology, to make it possible.

Not only Tuning has taken up the challenge of finding answers to the questions that face us regarding the (re)structuring of doctoral programmes. Individual universities have taken initiatives in this respect, too. A good example of the fact that a new philosophy is required, is an initiative taken by the K.U. Leuven in Belgium. Recently that institution has developed a competence profile for their doctoral students . On its website it is stated that “this profile should draw attention to more non-academic skills such as management and communication during the course of doctoral research. Especially these skills prove to be very important in the present job market. A thorough command of these skills can facilitate the transition to the job market”. The university has identified a list of ‘competences and skills’, that are necessary to pass successfully through the doctoral studies and are necessary for a further career, within and outside the K.U. Leuven. It has underpinned this conclusion with the outcomes of a small-scale survey. Leuven distinguishes five clusters of competences: intellectual competences, self-management competences, academic and technical competences, relational competences and leadership and change management. The approach used here is highly comparable and compatible with the work done by the Tuning project.


The Subject Area as focal point
From the very start, the Tuning project has focused on the subject area level. So far the discussions about the doctorate have taken place almost entirely on a more general level. The work executed by the different Tuning subject area groups shows that there are obvious differences between disciplinary domains and individual subject areas regarding the structure and contents of doctoral studies. While in health care and natural sciences it is common to do doctoral research as part of a large scale project, this is less often the case in social sciences, humanities and arts related topics. Normally in the first two domains the research of the doctoral candidate contributes to achieving a set of overarching objectives and solving research questions posed by more senior researchers, while in the latter disciplines it is normal practice for research projects to be defined and carried out by an individual, having its own research questions and objectives. These differences in approach affect the way generic as well as subject specific competences are formed. Therefore, Tuning thinks that it is very important to enhance our knowledge of how doctoral programmes are organized and what they look like at subject area level by comparing the situation in the different European countries. This approach offers us much insight into the obstacles to and opportunities for (re-)structuring doctoral studies in the best possible ways and to identify the possibilities for transnational co-operation. In final analysis it is the subject area or a combination of related subject areas that form the basis for a graduate, doctoral or research school.

A major step forward in the debate regarding the content of doctoral programmes has been the formulation of general descriptors as well as subject area descriptors for the third cycle or doctoral programmes. We are grateful for the excellent work done by the Joint Quality Initiative (JQI), an informal group of experts that has drawn up the so-called Dublin Descriptors, not only for the first two cycles, but also for the doctorate. The Dublin descriptors are phrased in terms of competence levels to be obtained by the successful learner.

The Dublin descriptors are of relevance for all third cycle programmes independent of the subject area involved. From the very beginning the JQI and Tuning have been considered complementary. This is also true for the third cycle. The nine subject areas that form the inner circle of the Tuning project in Europe have formulated their own third cycle descriptors. This also been done by a number of Thematic Networks concerning other subject areas. In 2007, the work of around twenty subject area groups has been validated by external experts or peers. In many cases also the work relating to the doctorate was taken into account. The cycle descriptors as well as the reference points for the third cycle of these subject areas can be found on the Tuning website and is being be published in special subject specific Tuning brochures.

In this publication papers of three subject area groups have been selected which offer insight in the state of affairs regarding doctoral programmes in Europe in their respective fields. The contribution of the Tuning Physics group represents the natural sciences. The Humanities are represented by a contribution of the History subject area group. Their contribution is partly based on a survey among young researchers who participate in the Sixth Framework Network of Excellence CLIOHRES, supported by the European Commission's Directorate General for Research. The third contribution has been prepared by the Thematic Network Polifonia and represents the performing arts sector.

These contributions are preceded by a discussion paper about applying the Tuning competence approach to third cycle studies. It intends not only to stimulate the debate about the structure and content of doctoral studies, but it also offers a model to apply the Tuning approach to third cycle programmes. In the paper a set of general competences is identified which according to the authors should be developed as part of doctoral programmes. It also discusses the usefulness of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) as a planning instrument for doctoral studies. Attention is also given to learning, teaching and assessment strategies. An annex offering a template for third cycle programmes concludes the paper.

Autumn 2008
Tuning Management Committee
Julia González and Robert Wagenaar