Enhancing the Quality of Research in Europe: Theoretical Perspectives on and Guiding Principles for Researcher Development

Linda Evans


The observation that: 'Europe does not perform particularly well in terms of truly outstanding research' (European Commission Directorate General for Research 2005, p. 2) was the impetus behind the creation not only of the European Research Area (ERA) and, linked to this, the European higher education research area (EHEA), but also the European Research Council and its funding policy. Set in motion by the Bologna Process, the whole point of these initiatives is to transform Europe into a cohesive, world class powerhouse of the 21st century global knowledge economy. As observed by Maria Helena Nazaré, President of the European University Association:

Europe needs well-trained researchers to meet the challenges that we are facing. In a time of crisis, it is essential that European universities have the capacity to train new researchers who can think innovatively and creatively; researchers who will form an essential element of overcoming our common challenges through new ideas and intellectual leadership (Byrne et al. 2013, p. 6).

A key objective is to rival the research 'super power' status and output enjoyed by the United States, along with more recently developed research-focused nations, notably China and India (European Commission 2007).

Perceived as a crucial link between the EHEA and the ERA, doctoral education is identified as the cornerstone upon which will be built Europe's future world class research excellence, and since 2003 it has been a key feature within the remit of the Bologna Process. Along with early career research training more generally, it was reprioritised at the Bergen and London ministerial conferences in 2005 and 2007 respectively, while the European University Association (EUA) convened a seminar in Salzburg in 2005 for the purpose of discussing doctoral programmes within the Bologna process. In 2008 the EUA established a Council for Doctoral Education with the remit of contributing to the development, advancement and improvement of doctoral education and research training in Europe. More recently, a set of Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training, defined with the help of experts from university associations, industry and funding organisations, was endorsed by the Council in Brussels in November 2011.

The first of these principles reads:

Striving for excellent research is fundamental to all doctoral education and from this all other elements flow. Academic standards set via peer review procedures and research environments representing a critical mass are required. The new academic generation should be trained to become creative, critical and autonomous intellectual risk takers, pushing the boundaries of frontier research (European Commission Directorate General for Research & Innovation 2011).

Yet there is something of a mismatch between the aspirations and vision expressed in this statement and consideration of how European doctoral education may be developed, for the remaining six principles largely ignore issues related to the quality of doctoral research. Indeed, the European Commission Directorate General for Research & Innovation (2011) emphasises that principle 7, quality assurance, 'is not about the quality assurance of the PhD itself'.

This paper focuses on that evident mismatch. Innovative doctoral training, I observe below, cannot be defined narrowly. With its focus on structures and systems, the Bologna discourse overlooks the vital issue of how we may directly enhance the quality of researchers and, by extension, of research. I argue that the quality of European research is crucial to raising its profile and ensuring that the ERA becomes a serious contender within the highly competitive international research community. Our best chances of ensuring that 'the new academic generation may be trained to become creative, critical and autonomous intellectual risk takers, pushing the boundaries of frontier research' (European Commission Directorate General for Research & Innovation 2011) lies in understanding how researchers develop, and applying that understanding to specific policy initiatives. Drawing upon my own research-informed theoretical perspectives, I propose a researcher development model aimed at improving the quality of European research, by enhancing the professionalism of future generations of European researchers. I begin by outlining what we know about researcher development.

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