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Slow reform

Europe lags behind in the quality of its postgraduate training, the lynchpin of the university system.

In both organisation and rhetoric, universities are set up to perform two main functions: teaching and research. Most policy analysis focuses on one or the other, but more attention needs to be paid to the glue that binds the two parts of the university system together: postgraduate education.

The training of postgraduate students—who are supervised by established researchers, but whose projects frequently represent the main source of intellectual vitality within the departments that are training them—represents the very essence of a university.

It is regrettable, then, that postgraduate education is an area in which Europe has allowed its global leadership to slip away. Over decades, major universities in the United States have drawn up increasingly sophisticated approaches in which students benefit from far more than the wisdom of their own supervisors. What has emerged is a more structured form of postgraduate education, in which students are formally taught methodology, ethics and statistics, as well as advanced aspects of their research disciplines.

Meanwhile, Europe has been held back by strong traditions and a reluctance to disturb the original rite of passage in which free-thinking research develops far away from institutional interference.

Lately, institutions and governments appear to have made a determined effort to catch up. The Bologna Process, underway since 1999, and the attempted creation of a European Higher Education Area alongside national initiatives have sought to strengthen postgraduate education. Evidence released last week in a thoughtful report by the European University Association shows considerable progress.

Some countries appear to be evolving faster than others. While the UK system is relatively strong, others have lagged. Some institutions in Germany lack the most basic admissions procedures, pointing to a huge variation between graduate schools there. However, it is in ensuring the quality of graduate supervision in which most countries have furthest to go.

As postgraduate education evolves from the ‘master-and-apprentice’ model, it is essential that the assets of the traditional system aren’t lost. Not least, there is a danger that with more faculty members involved, none of them will take full responsibility for the welfare of any student. In addition, intensified evaluation of such processes is unlikely to improve the quality of postgraduate education—and may even be counterproductive.

Postgraduate education is perhaps the most diverse part of a highly diverse European university system. While a traditional, one-to-one relationship can achieve results at smaller institutions in the humanities, structured graduate schools are now successfully training large cohorts of PhDs in the natural sciences.

The message for university leaders is clear. It is too easy to focus on the measurable outputs of research excellence and undergraduate teaching success, when excellence in postgraduate education is so difficult to quantify and deliver. But this unique form of research training is the lynchpin of the university, and the strength of a department’s PhD students is—and must remain—the true measure of its worth.