Doctoral education put through the policy wringer

Pressures on doctoral programs from economic and public policy directions have seen substantial changes in recent years, for both better and worse. Jeremy Gilling reports.
 
A contradiction is emerging between new research imperatives that drive an innovative economy and the tight fiscal environment prevailing in higher education. “Research is expensive, and the government agrees that research needs to be better funded. But universities remain under the same resource and financial pressure to produce quick research results, and these aren’t the results most likely to drive innovation,” says Ruth Neumann, associate professor in higher education and management at Macquarie University.
“While policy is grappling with questions of value for money, a more important need is for discussion around the research framework that will best deliver both outcomes.”
In a chapter in a new book, Changing practices of doctoral education, edited by David Boud and Alison Lee from UTS, Neumann notes a sharp increase in research and doctoral students and their greater diversity, with part-time, distance and international students constituting a growing share of the cohort.
Neumann, who conducted a national survey of doctoral education in 2001 and 2002, explores how much doctoral study had been influenced by a changing and increasingly interventionist policy environment in Australia
As shown in the ‘Decadic Review of PhDs in Australia’, produced by Professor Terry Evans and colleagues in 2003 (and continually being refined and updated), there has been a massive growth in the number of students undertaking PhDs since the early 1990s, many in new areas such as the health sciences.
“With this growth over time have come concerns about the nature, purpose and quality of research education. Concerns continue to be raised about completion times, the relevance of the award, and calls for new approaches and programs. The PhD is no longer seen only as an apprenticeship for being a university academic,” writes Evans.
Or as Boud and Lee write in the introduction to their book, “Doctoral education is becoming a signifier for a country’s competitive success”.
It is against this backdrop that Neumann’s survey was undertaken.
Expansion in doctoral education, she says, was driven by several factors: new disciplines open to doctoral research, the need to fast-track academics into areas facing staff shortfalls and the need for universities to attract additional fee income.
In an environment of tighter government funding, there was also a much more intense government focus on funding accountability and value for money. Completions rather than enrolments became the key funding measure, funding was allocated on a competitive basis, and the maximum period over which a research degree would be funded was reduced from five years to four.
“By 2002, the time had come to look closely at aspects of doctoral education like the time many students were taking to complete, attrition rates, the overambitious scale of some research topics, and the need for universities to give closer attention to doctoral education. They agreed that before the policy shift, doctoral programs had been allowed to drift and there was scope for quality improvements.”
Along the way, there have been casualties in the reform process, says Neumann.
“The reduction in funding from five years to four may have caused some lessening of the depth of some research. But this effect was dwarfed by the impact of funding cuts and the resulting staff shortages arising in the late 1990s. There were complaints from supervisors in some disciplines that because of these constraints, they were pressured to select and allocate more limited doctoral projects – which some described as ‘tick the boxes’ or ‘production line’ research. These pressures were most acutely felt in the more research-intensive universities and departments.
“There has also been an impact on the type of student selected, with a reluctance in some quarters to accept part-timers (who would typically be seen to take longer to complete) and a preference for local over international students, coupled with pressure to favour industry-sponsored and commercially relevant research over more abstract topics.
“Counterbalancing this, however, were the comments from supervisors that topics in some fields had been allowed to blow out of proportion, and they were now seeing more fine-tuned and manageable projects. They also support the more careful selection of students, and the earlier refinement of research topics – a process that used to sometimes take a year or two. They agree that three to six months is more appropriate. In some cases, they’re saying they won’t accept an applicant until the applicant has a fairly detailed idea what their research topic will be.”
Changing practices of doctoral education will be published by Routledge in 2009.

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