Policy makers and university leaders across Europe are currently discussing the proposal for Horizon Europe – the 9th EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. The level of engagement shows just how important the framework programme is for universities, as it will decide the future funding of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) and other programmes. In this context, this article reflects on the importance the MSCA International Training Networks (ITNs) have had on training the next generation of researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark.
Developing doctoral education for the future
The Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA)-funded International Training Networks (ITN) for doctoral candidates include mobility, general skills training, collaboration with the non-academic sector and collaboration between universities. This makes the networks important agents in knowledge exchange across research institutions and between sectors in Europe.
The primary advantage of ITNs is that they contain key elements to develop doctoral education for a more connected future and that they can strengthen the European profile of research areas. As Professor Søren Riis Paludan at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University puts it, “In our network – EDGE – fifteen young people are receiving training at nine different universities in Europe. It has been a fantastic platform for consolidating doctoral education within my field.”
During the last ten years, the number of doctoral graduates in Denmark has more than doubled, and it has become very important to prepare our doctoral candidates for multiple career paths. The international job market, still to a high degree, relies on candidates with specialist knowledge, general skills and a global mindset. The focus of MSCA-ITNs on cross-border and cross-sectoral collaboration and on transferable skills training generates a much-needed institutional awareness on the importance of preparing the candidates for the job market. In fact, Professor Paludan said, “The candidates have developed a strong network and have been very conscious about the need for acquiring transferable skills in order to expand on their job opportunities after the PhD degree.”
Professor and MSCA-ITN grant holder Susan Wright from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University has experienced that providing doctoral candidates with the opportunity to work outside for non-academic partners gives them a good insight into the labour market outside the university. According to her, the doctoral candidates bring the benefits of this experience into their research and careers.
The benefits of mobility for early stage researchers
During a research stay abroad, candidates gain skills that are useful for their future employment options. Access to expertise, data and infrastructures not available at their home institution is an opportunity for candidates to strengthen their research profiles, thus giving them a further advantage in a highly-competitive workplace. The connections and networks that any ambitious candidate will cultivate while abroad further help the candidate to identify relevant openings.
According to Tanja Hansen, International Advisor at Aarhus University, “In a global research landscape, international experience is very important. The skills that you obtain during a stay abroad such as confidence, adaptability and cultural sensibility are highly-valued by employers and increase the candidate’s employability.”
A survey among 300 MSCA fellows shows that international mobility and mobility across sectors and disciplines are beneficial for their doctoral education. However, the bureaucratic processes to facilitate mobility across borders can be a hindrance (Walakira, L. K. & Wright, S. (2017). The mobile academic. A survey of mobility among Marie Sklodowska-Curie doctoral fellows. Working Papers on University Reform, p. 8). A survey among doctoral candidates at Aarhus University showed that more than 80% of candidates who went abroad value the skills learned and the network gained as deeply important to their future career opportunities. However, many choose to go abroad for only a short period of time or not at all because of the difficulties involved.
The MSCA networks not only benefit the candidate, but to a high degree the involved institutions by offering them a framework to develop the necessary support structures. Doctoral candidates returning home from a stay abroad have matured and they have gained perspective from seeing things done differently. This makes the candidates valuable to labs that want to grow and include new methods and techniques.
From a recruitment perspective, nurturing a pool of talent means a higher chance of recruiting the most talented candidates for a given position. Furthermore, synergy is obtained through access to the networks’ shared core facilities, data and expertise. Due to this, institutions avoid building duplicate specialisation centres and become more agile because international networks of resources and expertise enable the institution to react swiftly to new funding opportunities.
Mobility as a driver for research collaboration
Aarhus University is currently participating in around 25 MSCA-INTs with more than 140 different partners and beneficiaries. It is our experience that collaboration on doctoral programmes is a very important driver for research collaboration:
“ITNs are first and foremost an opportunity to bring together researchers working within the same field, but from different countries, to create a research community that will last beyond the project period,” explains Professor Liv Hornekær from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University.
Professor Wright adds, “The ITN is a unique opportunity to create volume and critical mass within my research field. It has resulted in a new international research centre within my discipline at AU with more than 200 associated fellows from all over Europe, extensive collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines, and several memoranda of agreement with universities around the world.”
The experience of Professors Hornekær and Wright is that after their first ITN expired, the network lives on, resulting in new externally-funded projects and continued research collaboration across the institutions where doctorate holders found employment.
This extends to cross-sector collaborations according to Professor Paludan, “The MSCA-ITN “EDGE” has acted as a catalyst for interactions between labs, hospitals and private companies, which have led to a range of new and exciting projects that otherwise would not have been initiated.”
All 25 projects at Aarhus University contribute to the European research and innovation landscape because of the sheer quality of the research output. Furthermore, new partnerships are forged, new career paths are envisioned, and new avenues of research are explored. In other words, the result is more than the sum of the parts.
The value of MSCA-ITN for the future
Mobility across disciplines, nations and sectors is at the heart of MSCA-ITN and encourages the doctoral candidate to adopt new research methods and to deal with challenges beyond the traditional research environment - thus creating new solutions and forging new career paths. An important part of preparing for Europe’s future challenges is globally competitive research and knowledge exchange. The MSCA-ITNs facilitate this by developing research exchange and collaboration.
Aarhus University considers MSCA-ITNs as important platforms for strengthening existing research collaborations and for facilitating new ones - not least, within the framework of Horizon Europe. It is also our experience that international and inter-sectional mobility increases the quality of research and the attractiveness of the doctoral candidate.internationalisation
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.
The South African government is calling for a major increase in the number of doctoral graduates by 2030 and this ambitious target poses a challenge to universities. A 2010 study on how to meet the demands for higher-level skills in an emerging economy explores the blockages and challenges experienced in the field of doctoral education and forms the basis of ongoing debates and initiatives on the topic.
One important initiative focuses on developing a pool of supervisors as this is a key concern in terms of the relatively low percentages of academic staff with doctoral qualifications at the various institutions, the lack of transformation and the aging cohort of supervisors. Although much has been done to increase the pool of potential supervisors, the institutional capacity to supervise the 22 498 doctoral students (2016) remains a challenge.
Closely related to the ambitious increase of doctoral graduates in South Africa is their mobility within the regional and international context. In 2005, the profile of doctoral graduates in South Africa showed that 75% were South African. The international group consisted of the other SADC countries (8%), other African countries (9.25%), Europe (3.75%) and the rest of the world (4 %). By 2016, 44% of the 2 916 doctoral graduates were international with 19.6% of the total from the other SADC countries and 20.2% of the total from other African countries.
The ecosystem for doctoral education in the rest of Africa is challenging and issues include: the lack of funding for research and doctoral studies, national and regional priorities, academics prefer consultancy, a lack of doctoral innovation, low institutional capacity, the lack of academic freedom, poor quality supervision and a lack of infrastructure, including ICT.
The developmental role of universities, and the doctorate specifically, in Africa is well understood, however, many of the African countries do not have sufficient resources to invest in the capacity to produce doctoral candidates. There is anecdotal evidence that a large proportion of the African doctoral graduates in South Africa who return to their countries intend to work in higher education institutes.
Although most of the South African universities have embraced internationalisation, the draft policy of the internationalisation of higher education in South Africa has addressed many of the concerns that exist around the disconnect between internationalisation and the South African policies. There is the issue of a brain drain in which the best students from Africa are attracted to South Africa, but the concept of brain circulation is becoming more central to this debate.
A key area of this discussion fits within the international debate regarding doctorateness and the holistic development of doctoral graduates. Understanding what is needed to support and develop doctoral graduates who will be able to contribute to the development needs of Africa is important, as is a real understanding around the knowledge generation within doctoral study. Understanding who owns knowledge, how it is built and shared, as well as matching its generation to global and pan-African development goals are key concerns in enabling Africa to grow its own capacity for producing knowledge.
Brain circulation also requires student, as well as academic staff mobility and enabling this mobility is critical. The traditional aspects of mobility must be addressed but other mechanisms such as joint supervision and cooperative research projects will also lead to knowledge generation and sharing between the north and the south.
Cloete, N., Maassen, P. & Bailey, T. (Eds.) (2015). Knowledge production and contradictory functions in African higher education. Cape Town: African Minds.
Cloete, N., Mouton, J. & Sheppard, C. (2015). Doctoral education in South Africa. Cape Town: African Minds.
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