EUA Council for Doctoral Education

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Are the ESG applicable to doctoral education?

The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in European Higher Education (ESG) are applicable to any quality assurance process in higher education, including doctoral education. However, one must focus on the spirit of each standard and adjust it to the specific context of doctoral education.

In 2005, the ministers for higher education adopted the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) that have since re-shaped how quality assurance is carried out in Europe. In the same Bologna Process Ministerial meeting, the ministers also endorsed the Salzburg Principles as the basis for developing doctoral education in Europe. A few years later, in 2010, EUA’s Salzburg II recommendations pointed to the necessity to “develop specific systems for quality assurance in doctoral education.” In 2015, a revised version of the ESG was adopted by the ministers: It outlines that they are applicable to all higher education in the European Higher Education Area without making any explicit reference to doctoral education. Against this backdrop, it can be asked whether there are contradictions in these policy lines and whether the ESG are applicable to the doctoral education.

EUA believes that the principles for internal quality assurance included in the ESG are indeed applicable to the quality assurance of doctoral education. There has never been a contradiction between the three documents. For example, the indicators that the Salzburg II recommendations propose to be used in the quality assurance of doctoral education do not in any way contradict with the ESG. The ESG shy away from this level of prescriptiveness, rather focusing on agreed practices for quality assurance processes. But one may argue that due to the professionalisation or structuralising of doctoral education across the continent in the past decade, the idea of quality assurance processes being an integral part of these structures is more accepted. This is so, even if these quality assurance processes are not always explicitly identified as such, as an EUA study on quality assurance in doctoral education noted in 2013.

Let’s take a few examples to illustrate how the standards of ESG Part 1 for higher education institutions can be applied to doctoral education:

The first principle for quality assurance in higher education identified in the ESG is that of the institution’s responsibility for (the quality of) their activities. The institutional responsibility for doctoral education is also one of the key messages of the Salzburg documents. More specifically, ESG standard 1.1 sets the expectation that quality assurance should be linked to the institution’s strategy and stakeholders need to be involved in it. This link to institutional strategic direction is similarly highlighted in the Salzburg process.

EUA surveys show that doctoral schools have introduced transparent and formalised admission processes, as well as focus on monitoring and ensuring the progress of doctoral candidates in their studies, for example through individual study and research plans that are submitted for approval to the relevant bodies of the school. These developments are clearly in line with various ESG standards, which discuss the need for processes for designing and approving study programmes (1.2) and highlight the importance of ensuring a smooth student “life-cycle” (1.4).

Standard 1.3, with the expectation that there should be structures ensuring that education is delivered in a student-centred manner, was added to the ESG 2015 and universities have found it to be somewhat challenging. However, in doctoral education the candidate has always been at the centre and the whole experience is geared towards individual needs and targets. Similarly, in doctoral education, there has traditionally been much focus on supervisors: ensuring their competence and the quality of support they offer to doctoral candidates. These aspects are at the core of two of the ESG standards: standard 1.5 on teaching staff and 1.6 on student support.

While standard 1.6 may require a bit more adjusting to the context of doctoral education, it is a crucial one. Ensuring appropriate learning resources for doctoral candidates should be interpreted as including the need for an appropriate research environment and the need for doctoral education to be intrinsically linked to it.

These examples demonstrate the applicability of the ESG to doctoral education provided that one focuses on the spirit of each standard and adjusts it to the specific context of doctoral education (as suggested by the Salzburg II quote used in the beginning of this article). In doing so, one needs to keep in mind three key features of the ESG that are applicable to any quality assurance process in higher education: quality assurance processes need to respond to the diversity of higher education, they need to be fit-for-purpose and they need to promote quality culture.

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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

Tia Loukkola, EUA Director of Institutional Development, is one of the co-authors of the ESG 2015. She is a leading expert on quality assurance in Europe and heads EUA’s activities in the area, including a portfolio of projects and the European Quality Assurance Forum.

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