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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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What comes next after Covid 19 in re-setting doctoral education?

by Rosemary Deem

Like many other aspects of higher education teaching, supervising and research worldwide, doctoral education in higher education institutions (HEIs) has been massively affected by the pandemic. The effects include campus closures and lost experimental and fieldwork data, rapid transition to online supervision and viva defences, cancelled or online conferences hampering networking, lack of wellbeing, study progress being hampered by lack of suitable non-campus work spaces, home schooling children and poor or no internet connectivity (Else, 2021 ; European University Association Council for Doctoral Education, 2020 ; Jackman et al, 2021; Levine et al, 2021). As we are still in the throes of the pandemic at the time of writing, it is difficult to know whether some of the changes made in haste to doctoral education, such as remote supervision and examinations, will be permanent or not. Some adaptations, such as online seminars and conferences and a move away from physical international mobility to blended or virtual mobility, will probably continue, as they permit international participation without high costs or environmental damage. The legacy for doctoral researchers caught up in the Coronavirus chaos will certainly live on for quite a while, although hopefully over time the shock of the impact of lockdowns, working from home and universities being very selective over who gets an extension or extra funding may gradually fade.  However, for those with their eye on future academic jobs, the precarity regime of HE posts remains sadly intact in many HE systems (Deem, 2021b). The availability of jobs outside academe has also been affected by the pandemic, as countries struggle to manage politics, promote public health and provide support for the business, public and third sectors.

The experience of doing a doctorate in times of Covid-19 has brought both good and less good elements, from acquiring more resilience and online learning skills to experiencing poverty, poor mental health and having a lack of motivation to finish writing a thesis.  Some supervisors have also struggled to support their doctoral researchers alongside other students and their own research, particularly where HEIs have indicated that doctoral education is not a pandemic priority, a short sighted view sometimes brought about by difficult HEI financial situations and recruitment uncertainty. Despite the avalanche of articles about the Covid-related impact on doctoral education and doctoral researchers submitted to journals during 2020 and 2021, there are still many things we  know less about, such as: how part-time doctoral researchers have fared compared with full-time candidates; how STEM and Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences candidates compare in the obstacles they face; or how the doctoral research experiences of women and people of colour differ from those of men or white doctoral candidates. There has been relatively little investigation about how supervisors have been affected by remote supervision and the pandemic (UK Council for Graduate Education, 2021) compared with the literature on the effects on students. It is also hard to tell at this point whether the percentage of doctoral theses referred for further work, or even failed, has changed, as many of those due to submit in 2020-21 have deferred or interrupted their studies and have not yet been examined. There has been some advice offered to institutions on this (Houston & Halliday, 2021 ) but in quite a few countries, national regulations on doctoral study don’t make flexibility in doctoral submission and examination very easy.

We are also beginning to see some big differences in the coping strategies of HEIs. It appears that countries with high degrees of marketisation in their HE systems, and with a significant dependence on international students for income, have not fared particularly well under Covid (Drayton and Waltmann, 2020b ; Le, 2021; Marinoni, Hillijge, and Jensen, 2020 ; Startz, 2020 ), whereas countries with low degrees of marketisation or with previous experience of campus lockdowns, such as in the SARS epidemic, did better (Jung, Horta, & Postiglione, 2020). Furthermore, doctoral education was already in something of a crisis before Covid, with a long running critique of its failings, ranging across: so-called ‘overproduction’ of doctoral graduates relative to academic jobs (Nerad, 2020); completion and dropout rates; access to doctoral programmes for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds; and quality of doctorates and future employment prospects. The state of mental health amongst doctoral researchers is also now a common concern in many contexts (Deem, 2020a; Hazell et al, 2020; Levecque et al, 2017).  However, tackling all these challenges is not straightforward and there is a tendency to tackle each problem on its own in a single HE system or HEI, without thinking how each different challenge relates to all the others.  

What is needed post-pandemic (assuming the world gets there) is a concerted attempt to undertake, certainly at the institutional level, a more holistic approach, but also an approach which relates to the grassroots as well as institutional hierarchies. Such an approach has already been found to be effective in relation to schemes for increasing the numbers of women who get promoted to full professor (Morley, 2013). This initiative focuses first on looking at and fully supporting the people involved (doctoral researchers and supervisors) whilst ensuring their diversity and wide access to doctoral education for those who could benefit from it. Organisational factors are also important, such as valuing doctoral candidates’ academic and social contribution for its own sake, not as a source of cheap research and teaching labour, making doctoral researchers more visible and more important in their institutions, and ensuring organisational processes and procedures reflect this,. Joined-up change also means taking on board issues related to the kinds of knowledge that are valued in doctoral theses: whether that knowledge is from the global north or south; whether it is interdisciplinary or framed in a single discipline; which language or culture it relates to; and encouraging knowledge which values methodological or empirical foci as much as theoretical knowledge, irrespective of whether or not knowledge has immediate economic or social impact. Such an approach, aligned to a clear strategy and implementation process, could in time transform how doctoral education operates, to everyone’s benefit. This is not a change programme for the faint-hearted but unless something like this is adopted, long after the pandemic is over we will still be talking about doctoral crises and the challenges to be addressed, whilst failing to take a more holistic lens to transforming doctoral education than has so far been the norm in many HE systems and HEIs.  We owe it to our current and future doctoral researchers to attempt to develop a more humanistic and more equality-based approach to doctoral study after the rigours of the Corona virus outbreak.    

SRHE Fellow Rosemary Deem OBE is Emerita Professor of Higher Education Management and Doctoral School Senior Research Fellow, Royal Holloway (University of London), UK. She was the first woman to chair the UK Council for Graduate Education and was a member of three UK Research Assessment Exercise Sub-Panels on Education (1996, 2001, 2008).  An Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2006, she is a co-editor of Higher Education (Springer) since 2013, a member of the Peer Review College of the European Science Foundation and a co-convenor of the Higher Education Network in the European Educational Research Association

References (not embedded via URLs)

Deem, R (2020a) ‘Rethinking doctoral education: university purposes, academic cultures, mental health and the public good’ in Cardoso, S, Tavares, O, Sin, C and Carvalho, T (eds), Structural and Institutional Transformations in doctoral education: social, political and student expectations (pp. 13-42). Cham, Switzerland Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature

Deem, R (2021b) ‘The early stage academic and the contemporary university: communities of practice meet managerialism?’ in Sarrico, C, Rosa de Pires, MJ and Carvalho, T (eds), Handbook on Managing Academics Cheltenham Edward Elgar

Marinoni, G., Hillijge, V. t. L., & Jensen, T. (2020 ). The Impact of Covid on higher education around the world:  IAU Global Survey Paris International Association of Universities

Morley, L. (2013). Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations.

Nerad, M. (2020). Doctoral Education Worldwide:  Three decades of change In M. M. Yudkevich, P. G. Altbach, & H. de Wit (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Doctoral Education Worldwide: A Global Perspective (pp. 33-52). London and Thousand Oaks, California Sage.