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Balancing Excellence and Access in Doctoral Education

By Thomas Jørgensen

May 9th, 2013


A diverse, worldwide research system has many benefits, but it must not result in work being concentrated in a few global hubs.

Research is becoming an ever more global activity. Scientists all over the world can share data, communicate and travel with unprecedented ease. At the same time, countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa are emerging as major investors in research, building capacity to match the traditional research centres in the EU, Japan and the United States. China now produces more academic papers than any country apart from the US.


A more globalised and more diversified research setup will provide more opportunities for research collaborations and will widen the pool of talent. A bigger and more culturally diverse set of researchers can only be a benefit to all.

But even with emerging countries entering the field, research capacity is still highly concentrated in a few regions. According to the most recent report on the state of world science from UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, as of 2010 the EU, Japan and the US still carried out three-quarters of the world’s R&D.

The challenge, then, is to find the right balance: to build a global research community that can ensure excellence as well as inclusion and access. And, as attendees at the Second Global Strategic Forum on Doctoral Education, organised by the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education in Dublin this March heard, perhaps the most promising place to begin building such a system is in doctoral education.

The number of PhD graduations in many countries is increasing rapidly. In OECD member countries, the annual number of doctorates awarded grew by nearly 40 per cent in the decade to 2008. In China, the number of PhDs awarded grows by around 40 per cent each year. In some countries, such as the US and Japan, there are fears that the supply of PhDs vastly exceeds the demand for such qualifications in the research system, but across much of the world, expanding higher education and up-and-coming knowledge economies require an increase in the number of doctorates.

This growth has also created concerns about whether the quality of doctoral programmes is adequate to meet these demands. A PhD ought to equip its holder to engage internationally in his or her field in a credible way.

Institutions are putting great efforts into assuring the quality of their doctoral programmes and governments have been very active in setting up evaluations of doctoral education to weed out programmes falling below certain benchmarks. In Brazil, the CAPES Foundation, which works to improve the quality of higher education and research, has established a system of closing down underperforming doctoral programmes and giving extra funding to the highest ranking ones. In 2012, Vietnam shut down 25 per cent of all doctoral programmes for quality reasons alone.

Such quality control is good news in terms of ensuring a high level of research training, but unless extra effort is made to build capacity elsewhere it tends to strongly favour established institutions. There is a noticeable trend towards this; the bulk of doctoral education is provided by relatively few institutions globally. Universities such as the University of Cape Town, University of Sao Paulo or Seoul National University each dominate their systems in terms of doctoral graduations. Such a focus on quality of research training could result in the exclusion of other geographical regions and their talent from global research. 

Common global challenges create a worldwide need for research and innovation. If we are serious about research as an answer to global challenges, we need to think truly globally about how to create collaborations and investments that assure excellence, inclusion and access so that all regions have a reasonable chance of being part of the global research community.

Developing countries might have a particular need for applied research, but they also need to be able to connect, for example, frontier research in climate change to the impact on local crops, as a Colombian participant at the Dublin meeting pointed out. This would also mean that local talent could access and receive training in the community without being absorbed in the few hubs where capacity is concentrated.

There are major challenges to be solved, but the discussions at the Global Forum in Dublin showed a great deal of common ground when it came to concerns for quality and the need to reach out, without, as one participant put it, spreading capacity too thinly. It is all about finding the balance.

Thomas Jørgensen is head of unit at the European University Association responsible for the Council for Doctoral Education.

This article first appeared in Research Europe ( on May 9th, 2013, and is being republished with permission.

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