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Reforming Finnish doctoral education in light of European developments

The latest reforms in Finnish doctoral education have been based on universities’ own initiatives rather than regulations of the state. The role of the European University Association and its Council for Doctoral Education in promoting the development of doctoral education has been a significant force providing input for the Finnish reforms, proving that autonomous universities can quickly take up European trends when developing doctoral education.

Over the past few years, Finnish universities have implemented significant reforms in doctoral education. Unlike other many other major reforms in the Finnish higher education sector, developing doctoral education has been based primarily on the universities own, institutional-level activities and initiatives rather than prescribed regulations of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

There are two important reasons for this. Firstly, unlike in the case of bachelor- and master-level degrees, Finnish university legislation does not contain strict regulations on doctoral education. The legislation merely provides a loose framework for the structure of doctoral degrees, mainly focusing on the grading procedures of dissertations. There are no norms regulating important issues such as the structure of doctoral programmes, the length of studies or the conditions for the expiration of student status. Secondly, the development of doctoral education has become more internationalised, particularly in Europe, owing to the parallel policy questions, and pressures throughout European countries. This development has clearly shifted the responsibility of policy formulation from the national to the international level.

In line with this development, the role of the European University Association and its Council for Doctoral Education in promoting the development of European doctoral education has been important also in the context of Finnish reforms. Particularly, many of the Salzburg Principles (2005) and the subsequent Salzburg Recommendations" (2010) have been materialised in several universitylevel reforms. For instance, four dimensions derived from the Recommendations have turned out to be influential in the development of Finnish doctoral education.

The first is on recruitment, admission and status. Most universities have now developed more structured admission policies. In general, universities have become more selective in their admissions in order to improve the quality of doctoral training. A limited number of doctoral students also ensures better quality doctoral supervision, more targeted and streamlined curriculum development and the possibility to provide support for the most talented students. Higher levels of selectivity go hand-in-hand with the national policy goal that the number of doctoral degrees annually should not increase in the future (today Finnish universities award around 1,900 degrees per year).

The second recommendation used is on the supervision of doctoral students. All universities in Finland have established one or more doctoral schools to coordinate doctoral education in faculties and programmes. One of the tasks of the schools has been the development and distribution of good practices concerning supervision. For instance, supervisory agreements defining the responsibilities of the supervisors and the doctoral candidate are widely in use, and personal study plans for each student are agreed on and updated and monitored regularly. Some universities have set a maximum number of students that one supervisor is allowed to supervise in order to secure higher quality in supervision.

The third focuses on career development. Universities in Finland are now paying more attention to the employability of doctoral candidates. For instance, most universities offer transferable skills courses that aim to equip doctoral candidates with generic skills required in academic and non-academic labour markets. Moreover, university career services units are starting to acknowledge the importance of offering their services to doctoral candidates as well. Since 2007, doctoral graduates have been included in the graduate employability surveys conducted jointly by the country’s network of university academic career services units (Aarresaari Network).

Finally, the fourth area is funding. Universities in Finland are now offering fellowships or salaried, fixed-term positions for the most talented doctoral candidates. At the same time, many universities support their candidates with travel grants to support their possibilities for early career networking. Some universities also offer dissertation completion grants that can be paid to doctoral candidates at the final stages of their research. These grants allow students to work full-time on their dissertations for the last one to three months before submitting their theses for evaluation.

Also beyond these four examples, the aims and actualisation of the latest Finnish reforms in doctoral education seem to be in line with many of the goals outlined in the Salzburg Principles and Recommendations.

The autonomy of universities is likely to play a more active role in self-initiated, proactive development activities, in Finland and in other countries. Finnish examples add more evidence that universities, if they want, can quickly take up European-level trends and developments and bypass slower-paced government initiatives when implementing new ideas. Finnish reforms of doctoral education also verify that distributing information on international good practices can become a more effective tool for government steering (as opposed to regulation and financial incentives). As such, it can be used to reinforce the signals of other stakeholders – such as the European University Association and the European Commission – when these are considered to be in line with national policy interests.

Further readings

  • Kehm, B. M. (2007). Quo Vadis Doctoral Education? New European Approaches in the Context of Global Changes. European Journal of Education, 42 (3), 307−319.

  • Kivistö, J., Pekkola, E. & Siekkinen, T. (2017). Latest reforms in Finnish doctoral education in light of recent European developments. European Journal of Higher Education, 7 (3), 291–308.

  • Kivistö, J. (2011). Developing Doctoral Education in EU and in Finland: Using the U.S. System as a Benchmark. In Cai, Y. & Kivistö, J. (Eds.) Higher education reforms in Finland and China. Tampere: Tampere University Press.

doctoral education reform

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

Jussi Kivistö is (acting) Professor of Higher Education Management in the Faculty of Management, University of Tampere, Finland. Kivistö has published more than 70 journal articles, book chapters and edited books in the field of higher education management and policy. He frequently serves as an expert, speaker and consultant in various initiatives related to higher education policy, governance, and management in collaboration with domestic and international policy-making organisations (e.g. the World Bank).

Image credits: State Education Development Agency Latvia

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