Jan Rusiecki, University of Warsaw.
(Reproduced with the author's kind permission from The European English Messenger VIII/2 , Autumn 1999. This discussion document is based on a survey of postgraduate studies in Europe conducted by the author. The findings of the survey may be consulted on the ESSE Web-sites http://www.mshs.univ-poitiers.fr/esse/esse.htm).
1. Structure and length of programmes.
Before discussing postgraduate study programmes in Europe, we need to sketch their respective place in the systems of academic degrees and titles obtaining in the various countries.1
The structure and length of English studies in European universities vary considerably from country to country. The simplest system seems to be that of England and Wales, with just three levels: BA (3 years), MA (1-2 years), PhD (3 years minimum)-in all, from a (albeit unrealistic) minimum of 7 years to 9 years or more.
At the other extreme is the French system, consisting of 6 tiers: Diplôme d'Études Universitaires Générales (2 years), licence (1 year), maîtrice (1 year plus), Diplôme d'Études Approfondies (1 year), doctorat (3-6 years), L'Habilitation á diriger des recherches (at least 5 years after the doctorat)-in this case, then, from an unrealistic minimum of 13 years to 18 years or more.
In some countries the undergraduate programme leads to a joint honours degree in English and another language (and literature/culture). This is the case, for example, in Portugal (where the undergraduate course lasts 4 years). In France it is possible to take a multidisciplinary course leading to the Licence pluridisciplinaire de Lettres, Arts et Sciences Humaines, option Lettres Anglais which opens the way to MA studies in English, but is not considered a high recommendation for
candidates for teachers' exams.
Teacher-training may be built into the course or constitute a separate programme. In the former case there may be a choice between a purely academic and a pedagogical undergraduate programme. This is the case in Germany, with the programmes leading to two different degrees, the MA or the Staatsexam für das höhere Lehramt. In Poland there is a single 5-year degree (magister-more or less equivalent to the MA); if teacher training is included in the respective programme, this is specified in the final diploma. In France, on the other hand, graduates applying for teaching posts have to take separate examinations (CAPES or agrégation). In Britain, would-be schoolteachers must take a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, and those seeking qualifications in the teaching of English as a foreign language follow specialist courses, the length of which may vary from a year's postgraduate study to a fortnight in a private training college.
In some countries, for example Germany and Hungary, where the undergraduate course leads straight to an MA (or equivalent), the PhD is thus the first postgraduate degree. In the recent past, a few other countries, like Denmark or Portugal, split their previously uniform programmes of undergraduate study into a BA and an MA. Poland and Russia are currently in the process of changing the system along similar lines. Nonetheless, the first unambiguously postgraduate degree everywhere is the PhD--bearing different names in various countries--and it is this degree that we shall be concentrating on here.
2. Financing postgraduate studies.
Financing postgraduate studies is, of course, part of the larger problem of financing university courses at all levels. In most countries you have to pay for education at university level, from the undergraduate programme up to and including doctoral studies. There are still some countries, however, where undergraduate study is free. As we observed, several countries have recently shortened the basic course from 5 years to 3 or 4 (or are in the process of doing so), and introduced an equivalent of the BA degree (e.g. the licencjat in some Polish universities). The motivation behind the change has usually been financial: the country could no longer afford to finance a 5-year programme from public funds specially where study was free. The problem is particularly acute in postcommunist countries.2
Postgraduate study is now almost everywhere a commodity you have to pay for. In England the fees are high and grants difficult to obtain. In Denmark students taking a BA+MA course are entitled to a grant during a period of 5 years and scholarships are available for PhD courses. In Norway, research fellowships for PhD candidates allow students to concentrate entirely on research, but there is strong competition for such fellowships. In Portugal the fees are low and schoolteachers can sometimes obtain paid leave for postgraduate study, while university lecturers have a contractual right to 3 years' paid leave for their doctorates. In Poland applicants for scholarships accepted on PhD courses do not have to pay for tuition and supervision but do have to undertake to complete the doctorate in 4 years and to do 2-4 hours undergraduate teaching a week. In Russia university lecturers do not have to pay for aspirantura (doctoral study).
While support for postgraduate study varies from the provision of grants and scholarships to paid leave or teaching assistantships, the forms of support do not necessarily depend on the system of study: taught programmes or individual research.
Subsidising postgraduate studies--especially doctoral studies--is seen as the best way to ensure a steady supply of young lecturers and research workers, and thus lower the average age of academics, which in some countries--particularly in East and Central Europe--is disquietingly high.
Now, most people would agree that the aim is to prepare, in a relatively short time, a sufficient number of young scholars to take over from the older generation of academics. What, then, in the long run, is the more cost-effective way of achieving this?
a. Should doctoral candidates be given modest grants and be required, in
return, to provides services for the institution--teaching, perhaps also administrative
work? This may solve problems of teacher shortages, but usually delays the production
of the dissertation.
b. Or should candidates be given generous grants and required to do nothing in return
except guarantee completion of the doctoral dissertation within a fixed period of time
(3-4 years)? This would rapidly solve the shortage of qualified lecturers and eventually,
in many systems, help bring down the age at which scholars attain professorships.
3. Doctoral studies: courses or tutoring?
Taught courses leading to doctoral studies are a comparatively recent invention. Traditionally, a doctoral candidate had find an academic supervisor; there was no "course of studies," only a one-to-one relationship between master and pupil. Nowadays some academics are worried the fact that doctoral programmes are simply extensions of schooling. No sooner has student graduated with a degree than he or she can apply for a place on a doctoral programme--and go on being a student another 3 or 4 years.
There are real reasons for concern here: some universities make their doctoral students attend up to 20 hours of classes lectures and tutorials a week. Add to the examinations, obligatory essays, and of periodic checks of progress. Critics say that all this goes against what, surely, is the assumption of doctoral study: namely, that the candidate should learn to carry out independent research.
Advocates of taught courses of study emphasise their potentially interdisciplary character: the possibility of involving more than just one scholar in the process of shaping future PhDs; and also the opportunity for the candidate to remain in touch with colleagues working in similar fields, and to share ideas with them. It is also argued that working to a more or less strictly defined time schedule helps candidates plan their work better and shortens the process of reaching a satisfactory result. Many scholars point out that taught courses are the only type of doctoral study that really fits the scholarship system, because they oblige candidates to finish within a stipulated period of time.
The argument often advanced against this scheme is that--as we have already observed-- in the process of working towards the PhD degree candidates need to show themselves. capable of carrying out independent original research. Therefore, rather than being obliged to submit to organised schooling, they should be placed in a situation in which they have to find their own way towards the solution of the problem defined by their dissertation theme. In doing this they can--and should--rely on the help and advice of their supervisors. The role and importance of the supervisor is paramount, but the responsibility for the final result is the candidate's own.
I would again suggest two issues for discussion here:
a. Are structured doctoral studies a desirable form of helping PhD candidates carry out
their research, write their dissertations and pass the exams? Or should they be
abandoned in favour of the traditional system of individual tutoring?
b. Should PhD candidates be allowed to begin their study for the degree immediately on
graduation, or should we demand that they first gain some experience in teaching and
research, documented by conference papers and articles, rather than tests and
4. The original research requirement.
There are two schools of thought on this issue. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that this requirement is an outdated 19th-century concept. Some go even further, arguing that a PhD should not even be a requirement for university lecturers, as long as they are good teachers.
But such a view is based on false premises. Original research obviously implies an ability to think creatively and it is precisely this ability which is increasingly important in the competitive world of the free-market economy and the rapid communication of the computer and Internet age. Recent reforms of the educational system, from kindergarten to school-leaving age, have sought precisely to replace the transmission of large amounts of ready-made factual information with the development of the ability to search for and process information. In short, the development of the ability to think on one's own has moved down the educational structure, to the secondary-, or even priinary-school level. It would be strange, then, if we were to change our systems of postgraduate studies in the opposite direction, and, at the same time, to lower the demands on young lecturers.
The case for the original research requirement seems, then, very strong. At this point, however, we need to be more specific about what we actually mean by original research. Two meanings are possible. In its traditional sense, it implies research leading to new discoveries, new generalisations, new theories; that is, enlarging the frontiers of human knowledge. Let us call this "original research, type A."
There is, though, another possible meaning. We said above that original research implies the ability to think creatively, an ability prized at school level, which universities are bound to c6ntinue to enhance. However, no one expects undergraduates--let alone secondary-school pupils--to come up with new discoveries. Thus the concept of original research can also be understood in a more modest fashion: as the ability to marshal well-known facts in a new way, to present generally accepted theories from a novel angle, to look at well-researched social or literary phenomena with the eye of an observer coming from another culture, to perform a small-scale experiment replicating an eminent researcher's trail-blazing experiment in another context, and so on. Lets us call this "original research, type B."
It is in this more modest sense that original research is required even of undergraduates in some universities. More ambitious undergraduates everywhere actually expect to be given tasks of the kind described above. They argue that in order to be able to compete successfully for jobs on graduation they need to be taught to cope with problems requiring creative thinking.
A case could thus be made for introducing the requirement of small-scale type-B original research into all undergraduate courses-in the form of projects, term papers, or even mini-dissertations. It can be argued that, far from being an outdated 19th-century concept, original research in this sense will be a prerequisite for the success of any course of undergraduate study in the 21st century.
5. Research topics
If we agree that in the 21st-century type B original research will be a necessary element of higher education, then the need to argue for the requirement of original research at postgraduate level becomes superfluous. However, the kind of research required varies from country to country and from one university to another.
There are again, broadly, two schools, corresponding to type B and type A research respectively. In the one case, stress is laid on exhaustiveness of treatment (in other words, on erudition); in the other, emphasis is given to originality and novelty of treatment. In truth, this is not, of course, an either-or proposition: an erudite work of synthesis should have an original component, and a trail-blazing research report has to be preceded by a critical survey of the relevant literature. Nonetheless, in practice, in some countries academics tend to prize exhaustiveness, while in some bther academic centres, the premium is put on originality, regarding the dissertation more as a display of the candidate's capacities rather than of his/her knowledge.
Here we come, then, to the crux of the problem: where can candidates and supervisors find topics for independent original research, what kinds of topic are left for them to choose from? Indeed, how much original research can we demand in this day and age? After all, the language (or, rather, languages), literatures and cultures of the English-speaking countries have been the subject of intensive study for quite some time, particularly in the economically developed Anglophone countries. What, aside from erudite works of synthesis, can non-native researchers contribute?
Some say, a great deal; particularly in the study of language. They mention the names of great Dutch and Danish grammarians of the past: Poutsma, Kruisinga, Zandvoort, Jespersen. They point out the achievements, in our times, of Scandinavian scholars working in Lund, Helsinki, Oslo, or Bergen--especially in computer-based analysis of English. But the fact remains that for thousands of postgraduate students of English there simply are not enough subjects left for really original research in English phonology, grammar, lexis, semantics, or pragmatics.
The same applies to topics in literary and cultural studies. Where can students and their supervisors look for subjects which have not yet been tackled many times over and from many different points of view?
Many supervisors suggest to their students topics which require predominantly type B research. Thus, one frequently adopted solution has been to concentrate on "bridge" subjects. language studies, these are topics in contrastive linguistics (cf. Papers and Studies in Contrastive Linguistics from Poznan University). In literary and cultural research, some scholars have favoured reception studies (as in "The Reception of Dickens's novels in Poland"). Translation studies offer further possibilities, like "Problems of translating Shakespeare's Histories into Polish," as do studies of cross cultural influence and contact, such as "Poland in Hamlet" (University of Warsaw) "The academic exchange between Cologne and Scotland in the 14th, century" (University of Cologne). Mostly, however, topics for original research nowadays seem to be sought in areas which require coordinated study in more than one discipline--for example, "Lawrence Steme's Journal to Eliza. A semiological and linguistic approach to the text" (University Cologne), "Women and economics in The Merchant of Venice" (University of Coimbra). In second language acquisition and learning research there is still room for studies of the. influence of the learner's native language and culture on the process of acquiring proficiency in another language, as in "Language acquisitions --a comparative study: English/Norwegian" (University of Tromso). In the field of language teaching, the topics are often drawn from new technology--i.e. "From the objective test to computer-aided instruction: developing an authoring system" (University of Cologne), "The use of multi-media programs in computer-assisted teaching and learning of English; an experimental study" (University of Warsaw).
There is still the more ambitious altemative of type A research: tackling subjects which are quite novel. In linguistics, for example, this might mean reinterpreting linguistic phenomena in the light of a recent new theory such as cognitive linguistics, or looking at language with the aid of new tools, as, for example, in the application of computer programs to the analysis of very large corpora. In literary and cultural studies it might me the description and interpretation of a text texts which have only recently been published. Type A research, however, requires both originality and a good deal of courage. The young researcher is largely on his/her own: there exist, by definition, very few published sources for him or her to rely on. On the other hand, too short a bibliography at the end of the dissertation may cause its rejection by the reviewers.
Thus, if we wish to continue requiring original research from our doctoral candidates--and we have suggested that we should--then we have to rethink the question of possible topics for dissertations, both type A and type B. Suggestions have been put forward for the creation of a pool of thesis topics for English scholars in Europe. I would venture to suggest that, rather than topics, these should be "topic frames," the concrete detail of which would be filled in by the students or their supervisors.
a. Can we demand innovative, type A research from all doctoral candidates?
b. Is a European-wide pool of thesis topics or "topic frames" a good idea?
6. Doctoral study and the academic career
There is a further question here: should we make a distinction between candidates aiming for an academic career and those for whom the doctorate is an end in itself, with a corresponding differentiation of research type? For most of our discussion so far we have silently assumed that postgraduate study, and in particular PhD study, is undertaken by people planning an academic career. This assumption needs revising. In a number of countries, numerous PhD holders can be found in the government, in local administration, in business circles. A graduate degree lends prestige and increases the holder's chances for a good position. It does not have to be achieved by type A research; type B will suffice. It would seem, however, that it is mostly type A research that we should require from those who wish to become members of academe.
There are two basic ways of looking at the academic career, the gateway to which is the PhD degree. The bureaucratic view is reflected in a system based on a long ladder of titles and degrees, obtained by dissertations and exams. In this kind of system a candidate for a professorial chair has to pass through three separate evaluations: the PhD, the habilitacja, and the professorial title. On the other hand, from what we might call the meritocratic view, the.PhD candidate has to win his or her initial place in the academy guided and helped by a master, but what happens next depends on the quality of his/her teaching and the quantity and quality of his/her publications. In some universities one does not even have to hold a PhD to become a full professor.
There are two varieties of the bureaucratic approach itself. In the one case, the system of checks on the young scholar's progress up the academic ladder is operated solely by the academic community itself. Its goal is to exercise control over promotions to higher ranks, and to weed out unworthy claimants. Smaller and less renowned colleges and universities may be kept up to the accepted standard by requiring external reviewers for dissertations.
Critics point out that the system does not guarantee that only scholars of really high quality fill professorial chairs, since hard- working and determined persons can reach the top of the ladder by the sheer momentum of their upward movement. It is also sometimes said that the system reveals a certain lack of confidence on the part of the academic community; that "objective" bureaucratic standards are used where the reputation of a scholar in his/her community is not considered a reliable enough criterion for promotion. The important advantage of the system, however, is that the academic community is autonomous and sovereign in its decisions, whatever they are.
In the other case, ultimate supervision is exercised by the state, often through the Ministry of Education, but sometimes by an agency answering directly to the head of state. This is the case in some postcommunist countries, and refers either to the top two degrees or titles, the habilitation and the professorial title (as in Poland), or begins right at the PhD level (as in Russia and Romania). In this kind of system the academic career may be subject to political control, since the criteria used by those governmental bodies which confirm, or refuse to confirm, a degree need not be strictly scholarly.
The meritocratic approach is founded on the assumption that members of the academic community know who is good and who is not. Their knowledge may be subjective, but nowadays it is usually supplemented in two ways. The success of an academic's teaching is assessed in professorial and course-evaluation surveys, and the quality and quantity of his/ her research is also evaluated by reviews and citation indices. The system may have its disadvantages, but at least it ensures complete autonomy of the academic community.
7. The varying value of the PhD degree in Europe
We have talked about the PhD degree and the different forms of doctoral study as if the doctorate meant the same thing everywhere. In actual fact, the place of the PhD on the ladder of academic honours, and thus its importance in the scholarly world, varies from country to country. In Great Britain it is the highest degree and its holders are fully fledged members of the academic community. On the other hand, in Poland (and one or two other countries) the doctorate is only the first rung of the ladder for someone who is planning a university career: there are two higher rungs for him or her to reach.
Aside from all that, the weight of the PhD degree itself is not the same everywhere. The requirements that a doctoral candidate must meet to enter doctoral study and obtain the degree vary from country to country. In some countries, like France, Hungary, and Spain, doctoral study consists of two stages; in France the first stage leads, actually, to a separate degree (DEA). In Spain, doctoral candidates have to produce two dissertations.
One is led then to the conclusion that the value of the doctorate in Britain is different from the value of the degree bearing the same name in France, and different again from the value of the doctorate in, say, Poland. Varietas delectat-but will it really go on being delectable in a united Europe?
There has been a good deal of discussion on the subject of a unified credit system for undergraduates in a united Europe, making it possible for students to move from university to university throughout the continent. A unified credit system will sooner or later lead to unification of the system of undergraduate degrees. Perhaps now we ought to begin asking questions about the system of postgraduate study, and in particular about the value of the doctorate for
academics wishing to move from university to university throughout the continent.
a. Should the system of postgraduate degrees eventually become unified in united Europe?
b. What should be the place of the doctorate in that system?
c. Which system of academic promotion, bureaucratic or meritocratic, should we , support?
The European Union will probably go on expanding, and also integrating its systems., If we want to rethink the system of postgraduate study in Europe, we shall have to discuss seriously the whole system of university education-including the undergraduate programme--as well as the structure of the academic community and its systems of promotion.
My thanks to Helmut Bonheim for extended discussion of draft versions of this paper. Any errors, as well as all the opinions expressed, are, of course, my own responsibility.
1 This discussion document is based on a survey of postgraduate studies in Europe conducted by the author. The findings of the survey may be consulted on the ESSE Web-sites http://www.mshs.univ-poitiers.fr/esse/esse.htm or http://filo3.pfmb.uni-mb.si/~kennedy/esse/default.htm
2 Poland is a striking example. One of the few benefits of the communist system was free education at all levels, including doctoral study. After the changeover to a market economy, universities found themselves in financial straits. One of the consequences is the shortening of the basic course to three years, which is now being introduced in some universities. Another consequence is the introduction of fees for some students: namely for those who have passed the entrance exam and so can be admitted to the first year, but failed to get a prescribed minimum number of points in the exam. The fee-paying students usually constitute about half the numbe of first-year undergraduates. This arrangement is generally criticised as immoral and antisocial. However, critics are told quite bluntly that without income from fees the university would soon become insolvent. Probably the best altemative--one that is now being discussed-- would be the introduction of fees for everybody, combined with an extensive system of grants.