Doctoral education in Catalonia – an overview

The study visit of the delegation from Kenyatta University comprised as one of the main goals to get to know, in situ, the organization and functioning of doctoral education in Catalonia.

Claudi Alzina from the Inter-university Council of the Generalitat de Catalunya gave an interesting overview of doctoral studies in Catalonia. He states that with a production of around 1.600 thesis each year it is impossible (and not desirable) for the university system to keep all PhDs in their institutions. On the contrary, employment will be basically outside academia in the future. He identifies as one of the major challenges universities in Catalonia face regarding doctoral education currently the enhancement of collaboration with the industry sector in order to create high qualified workplaces to absorb these highly qualified people. In this sense, it is necessary to improve the image PhD holders enjoy in society in general, particularly in industry, where having a PhD is not yet seen as an asset and not always appreciated. To improve this issue, the Government of Catalonia initiated one year ago a programme of industrial doctorates, linking universities and industry through PhD students. Besides the supervisor belonging to one of the Catalan universities, each student in this programme has a second supervisor from a company. At the same time, in his doctoral thesis he tries to solve a problem which is of interest for industry. Alzina hopes that through this initiative, the appreciation for doctorates in industry will increase, creating at the same time more opportunities for getting a job in industry once the PhD is finished.

Another interesting topic is the high percentatge of international students involved in doctoral programmes in Catalonia. More than 25% of all PhD students at the Catalan universities come from abroad. In order to still increase this number of international PhD students, the Government fosters masters and doctoral programmes taught in English, tries to incorporate more international professors at the Catalan universities, encourages inter-university collaboration at postgraduate level and fosters the increase of research programmes of international interest.

While visiting four of the member universities of ACUP (UB, UAB, UPC and UPF) we learned that there has been sustantial changes in the Spanish system of doctoral studies introduced recently through a royal act passed in 2011 (following previous royal acts from 1998, regulating PhD studies with courses, 2005, adapting doctoral programmes to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), and 2007).

Acording to this new royal act, universities are now obliged to create doctoral schools if they do not have one yet, as for example the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) that created their Postgraduate School already 20 years ago.

Another reform introduced by this act is the obligatory annual assessment of the progress students have made in the elaboration of their thesis. With the aim of reducing the necessary time to finish doctoral thesis to 3 years and to improve the quality of them every student hast to pass every year an exam or oral presentation. This activity also facilitates to measure the quality of supervision and increases the accountability of the professor.It might still lower the average age that PhD students have in Catalonia when finishing their thesis, currantly between 23 and 28 years, already very low in comparison of the PhD students at Kenyatta University.

The new act also obliges to sign a document of commitment signed by both the student and the supervisor that helps to improve the relationship among them, establishing the supervision tasks contributing thus to avoid misunderstandings.

A part from the reforms introduced by the royal act from 2011 we learned that there is little recognition of supervision in the Catalan university system: only 25 hours from more than 1.000 hours in the conctract of the professors correspond to supervision. Promotion does not take into consideration time and efforts dedicated to supervising PhD students.

In relationship to one of the biggest challenges KU is facing regarding supervision, overworked professors as they have to supervise big numbers of PhD students, the Catalan universities stated that, in general, the ratio supervisor – PhD students is quite low. At UAB, for example, currently the ratio is 1 PhD student per 1 supervisor, allowing a maximum of 5 PhD students per supervisor as an internal rule for quality assessment.

Regarding e-supervision of doctoral students, currently none of the presential universities in Catalonia has an official e-supervision system put into practice. Nevertheless, the responsibles of the Doctoral Schools state that legally e-supervision would be possible, but that there are no structures or managing schemes in place to pass from face to face supervision to an increasing number of e-supervised PhD students.