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Inter-university collaboration: the case of FLAMES

FLAMES is an inter-university doctoral training network involving all five Flemish universities. It provides a structural, accessible, broad and high-quality course offer for young researchers needing methodological and statistical insight and skills. By taking advantage of complementary expertise, it builds synergies and turns competition into collaboration to optimise training for a future generation of researchers.

Credits: Karen Fran├žois

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.

Acknowledgement

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.

interinstitutional collaboration

This article reflects the views of the named authors only. 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

Karen Francois, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, where she is also Director of the Doctoral School. She is the Spokesperson for the FLAMES network.

Image credits: Milena Van Braeckel

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