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One thesis, two diplomas: the real challenge presented by cotutelle agreements

The internationalisation of doctoral studies plays a central role in preparing doctoral candidates for future careers in various sectors of society. In many universities, candidates have the possibility to receive a double degree, even though the drafting of cotutelle agreements is a very long process due to different regulations. Francesc Sepulcre, Eugenia Miranda and David Artigas from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia point out the main challenges associated with such agreements and how can universities overcome them.

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.

interinstitutional collaboration

“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

About the author

Francesc Sepulcre is the Dean of the doctoral school at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC). He is Professor at the Department of Agri-food Technology and Biotechnology (UPC) and has served as Deputy Director of the School of Industrial Engineering (EUETIB-UPC). Sepulcre is also the coordinator of the doctoral program “Agri-food Technology and Biotechnology”. His research areas include molecular biophysics and the elucidation of molecular structures by using spectroscopies.

Eugènia Miranda is the Head of the Doctorate Academic Management Service at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC). She holds a degree in pedagogy and a master’s in Management and Development in Organisations from the Universitat de Barcelona. She has also served in the academic management service at the UPC School of Civil Engineering.

David Artigas is Academic Secretary of the doctoral school at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC). He holds a degree in physics from the Universitat de Barcelona and a doctorate in physics from UPC. He is coordinator of the PhD programs in Photonics and the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate Europhotonics. Artigas is also a lecturer in electromagnetism and laser at the Telecom School at UPC and has been visiting scholar at the Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.

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