In the Upper Rhine region, the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Haute-Alsace and Strasbourg together with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology are breaking new ground in cross-border cooperation. The trinational university grouping “Eucor – The European Campus”, opens doctoral candidates to a research landscape that goes beyond the potential of a single university.
In the Upper Rhine region, the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Haute-Alsace and Strasbourg together with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) are breaking new ground in cross-border cooperation. They have initiated a trinational university grouping called “Eucor – The European Campus”, which is a university network covering teaching, research, innovation and administration. It provides doctoral candidates with a research landscape that goes beyond the potential of a single university.
The network strengthens common bonds, enjoys complementary aspects and creates synergies. Situated at the heart of Europe, with barely 200 kilometres between them, the five universities are uniting their potential and defining common visions. Their aim is to develop a distinct area of knowledge and research – one without walls or borders, and with great international appeal. They are therefore already on the path to creating a European university, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in his keynote address on European policy at Sorbonne University in September 2017 and later reiterated by the European Council in December 2017.
Five universities, one campus
The concept behind the Upper Rhine region’s shared campus is innovative cross-border cooperation. For instance, doctoral candidates from all five universities can take courses at the GRACE Graduate Center of the University of Basel or at the University of Freiburg’s Center for Key Qualifications, and have the same rights to use all the services, such as libraries and canteens.
The universities are also developing concepts related to the shared use of research infrastructure, with the goal of making efficient use of resources, enabling synergies and multiplying the possibilities for research by doctoral candidates.
Binational or trinational doctorates
Much cooperation already takes place in the field of doctoral studies. There is the cotutelle de thèse option, a joint doctoral supervision agreement between two or more different higher education institutions, which can lead to a binational or trinational doctoral degree. This aims to intensify international cooperation in research while simultaneously increasing the mobility of doctoral candidates. It creates the possibility of earning a doctoral degree at two universities at once, on the basis of one dissertation. In addition, there is also the possibility of earning a structured cross-border doctoral degree in shared doctoral colleges.
Doctoral candidates also benefit from cooperation between the universities in research as a whole. Some subject areas have established networks that promote the exchange of knowledge between researchers, doctoral candidates and other students at the five universities.
For instance, English specialists have the “Eucor English” network – a forum for intercultural exchange that brings together specialists in anglophone literature and culture as well as in linguistics at the partner universities. Each year the network organises workshops and trinational meetings and seminars for master’s and doctoral candidates to exchange the results of research and initiate joint projects. There are similar networks in neurosciences, Scandinavian studies and classical studies.
Enriched by diversity
The great added value of the project lies in the diversity and the wide variety of perspectives it brings. Combining various specialisations and approaches, which are often shaped by national ideas, raises new questions. Using different laboratories and facilities can be complementary and expand the options for a university. Intercultural exchange sharpens ideas and enriches research. It opens doctoral candidates to a research landscape that goes beyond the potential of a single university.interinstitutional collaboration
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Doctoral internationalisation is an excellent opportunity for doctoral candidates to acquire international training, experience and skills. This will undoubtedly contribute to improving the quality of theses, as well as to establishing relationships between different research teams, consolidating the internationalisation of science.
Currently, it is possible to obtain a double degree when a doctoral candidate has two supervisors from two universities in different countries. The student divides time between these two universities, spending more or less long periods in both institutions. This double degree requires universities to sign cotutelle agreements in which they must detail the different administrative, academic and scientific procedures/steps that constitute the realisation of the thesis.
In that sense, doctoral studies under a cotutelle regime have two well-differentiated parts: the most important, identical in all countries, consists of carrying out scientific work that advances the frontier of knowledge. The other refers to the academic and administrative structure in each university, as the candidate will receive a diploma for a thesis that has been evaluated by experts according to different university regulations.
While the scientific part of such agreements are compatible and well-established, the administrative side is more complex as some aspects are completely incompatible. Typical examples appear on the thesis evaluation panel. In some universities the supervisor must be part of the panel, while in others such participation is strictly prohibited. Another challenge refers to the number of members that the panel can have, as some have only one while others have up to seven. Different scoring systems among universities is also a challenge, sometimes creating situations in which one thesis receives two different scores. In addition, it is also common for some universities to review a thesis through external experts before it is argued, while in others corrections are proposed afterwards and then introduced in the final manuscript.
However, the fundamental basis of a thesis, the research work, is carried out and managed basically in the same way in any country, with no need to sign agreements between universities.
Due to the regulation differences, the drafting of cotutelle agreements is, in most cases, tremendously complex and long. So much so that it usually requires one of the universities giving up on applying its own rules, in order to recognise those of the other university. In addition, such negotiations are so lengthy that often the agreement is signed when the doctoral candidate is very close to arguing the thesis. The complexity requires the cotutelle agreements to be supervised by different departments at the university (legal, economic, doctoral school), which only justifies the long duration of the negotiations. For example, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya took about 6, 11, 14, 29 and 48 months to agree and sign cotutelle agreements with Iran, Tunisia, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany respectively.
There is much pressure to sign cotutelle agreements and students feel passionate about the prospect of having two degrees at the price of one. Universities can increase the number of theses in their yearly balances through such agreements. Furthermore, the European Commission is promoting joint diploma and double degrees through the Erasmus Mundus PhDs, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, and ITN consortiums, which in almost all cases requires the signature of a cotutelle.
Therefore, a fundamental question arises, what does all of the pressure and work surrounding such double degrees really bring? We believe the answer is nothing. Having a double degree only indicates that the doctoral candidate has made stays at two universities, something that routinely occurs in doctoral studies. In fact, this information can be perfectly recognised in the title diploma, which could be awarded by either one of the two universities involved.
In short, once we have accepted that internationalisation in the doctorate is necessary, it should be naturally incorporated into a thesis development, and cotutelles and double degrees should be used in exceptional situations. Instead of striving to grant more than one degree for a single thesis, we should instead strive to define parameters that can measure the quality of the thesis. We should work to differentiate the thesis from technical work or an excellent essay. Only in this way will we be able to advance our knowledge.Read more
The Flanders Training Network for Methodology and Statistics (FLAMES) is a joint initiative of the five Flemish universities: the Free University of Brussels, Ghent University, Hasselt University, KU Leuven and the University of Antwerp. FLAMES was officially launched on 31 May 2013 in Brussels and the first summer school took place in September 2013 in Leuven. Its mission, according to the steering board is to “support young researchers in their pursuit of best-in-class training in methodology and statistics by providing an overarching, structural, large and high-quality course offer for doctoral students and young empirical researchers. Flemish universities provide world class science and teaching and stand for high quality experiences. The overall goal is to strengthen research across the universities in a spirit of collaboration.”
Although there are many conditions that have contributed to the success of FLAMES, there are three in particular that are relevant in facilitating good practice in interinstitutional collaboration. They are (i) sustainable funding from the regional government; (ii) an existing institutional structure to implement the network; and (iii) bottom-up support from the universities.
Firstly, the Flemish regional government provides sustainable funding for FLAMES, which was initiated after a governmental decision in 2011 to financially support doctoral training in Flanders. A total budget of four million euros a year was allocated to the five Flemish universities for this purpose. There are three basic rules on how to spend the budget following on (i) research support, (ii) career training, and (iii) internationalisation of early stage researchers. Additional regulations stipulated that 25% of the budget (or one million euros) should be spent on joint “interuniversity” activities. Such regulations were a strong incentive for all five Flemish universities to join forces and give rise to FLAMES. Ghent University initiated a first meeting in April 2012, inviting stakeholders in doctoral education from the various universities to participate. Soon after this first informal meeting, an official roundtable was organised at the Flemish Interuniversity Council.
The second relevant condition is to have an existing institutional structure to implement the network. The introduction of formalised doctoral schools at Flemish universities dates back to the late 1990s. As of 2008, all five universities have established doctoral schools to support doctoral training of early stage researchers. Besides the institutional structure of doctoral schools, Flanders also has a strong tradition of interuniversity collaboration dating back to 1976 when the Flemish Interuniversity Council (Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad) was established. This Council represents the Flemish universities and serves as a platform to facilitate cooperation between them. A doctoral schools working group was established shortly after the governmental decision in 2011 to financially support doctoral training. This working group represents all doctoral schools in Flanders and meets five time a year.
The third condition is the bottom-up support from the universities themselves. Interuniversity initiatives in general are discussed and negotiated by the doctoral schools working group at the Flemish Interuniversity Council. They are confirmed by all five vice-rectors of research and development. In the case of FLAMES, after a few meetings, the initiative was formally supported by all five Flemish universities and it was decided to hire three full-time equivalent doctoral holders in statistics and/or methodology. They would work as a team in the overarching project and would be employed (some of them part-time) by one of the universities. This bottom-up support by all universities in terms of financing and employing the team was key in launching the initiative.
In terms of added value, both the universities and the doctoral candidates are benefitting from the FLAMES experience. Firstly, at the institutional level, universities can now take advantage of complementary expertise within the interuniversity team FLAMES has built a dynamic group of experts in research methodology and statistics dedicated to the methodological training of early stage researchers. The team focuses on the development of training materials, it provides training sessions at the different universities in Flanders, it maintains a website designed to disseminate up-to-date information on available courses, it participates in the organisation of several training activities (colloquia, summer schools, etc.) and it ensures that there is a close match between supply and demand. The interuniversity structure builds synergies and turns competition into collaboration to optimise available training. It also benefits and encourages local university initiatives that are open to all early stage researchers in Flanders. Moreover, local initiatives and support are instrumental in making the project possible.
In detail, the FLAMES training programme is embedded in the doctoral training program as an add-on, which means that all universities can provide a richer and more diverse training programme. FLAMES offers a qualitative and a quantitative track; it provides basic courses and specialised courses; it contributes to training in scientific integrity; it gives training with different software packages; it provides lectures and hands-on training; and finally, its training is organised in interdisciplinary groups.
The second point of added value is the structural, accessible, broad and high-quality course offer for early stage researchers needing methodological and statistical insight and skills. Courses are taught by the team of coordinators with complementary backgrounds and high-level expertise. The FLAMES programme consists of various interuniversity courses, an annual two-week summer school offering fourteen modules, an annual meeting devoted to a special theme, a bi-annual award for excellence in statistics or methodology given to an individual or organisation, and support for the annual meeting of the Royal Belgian Statistical Society in the form of a PhD day.
The interuniversity courses last two or three days and cater to the need among PhD students and post-doctoral researchers for practical skills in statistics or methodology. The course topics are discussed by the FLAMES steering board and aim to fill gaps in local university programmes. The summer school lasts two weeks and is particularly suited to early stage researchers who need to acquire statistical or methodological skills in a short amount of time. As for bottom-up support, all registration fees are covered by the doctoral schools, meaning that individual early stage researchers do not pay any fee.
FLAMES is visible proof of the added value of interinstitutional collaboration. It has allowed the network to think beyond traditional and ideological boundaries and enabled it to combine various strengths and approaches to serve the needs of early stage researchers.
This short article is mainly based on the invited article to be presented at the upcoming International Conference on Teaching Statistics (ICOTS): Abatih, E., Carbonez, A., Francois, K., Goetghebeur, E. & Plevoets, K. (2018). Flanders’ Training Network for Methodology and Statistics (FLAMES). In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Teaching Statistics (ICOTS) Looking back, looking forward. Topic 7: Statistical literacy in the wider society. Kyoto, Japan, July 8-13.Read more