Is Europe seeing the massification of the doctorate?

Vocational institutions are winning the right to award PhDs, while professional doctorates are also expanding. But how compatible are academic and vocational focuses in research degree provision – and how easily can status disparities be overcome, asks Ben Upton

February 2, 2023
Crowd of graduates to illustrate Is Europe seeing the mass ification of the doctorate?
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When the UK abolished the binary divide between polytechnics and universities in 1992, the most salient change for the former was their new ability to apply for public research funding and research degree awarding powers.

However, while the performance of Northumbria University – formerly Newcastle Polytechnic – in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework has been seen as something of a breakthrough moment for “post-92” universities, the fact that that category still exists 30 years on speaks to the status gap that endures between those institutions that bore the “university” title before 1992 and those that did not.

Supporters of the binary divide’s abolition argue that it unlocked new opportunities for the institutions themselves, their students and the regions they serve, leading to innovations that make a real difference at the professional coalface and boosting social mobility by opening up new career pathways for non-traditional students – including in academia.

But it is still not difficult to find people who believe that the binary divide should never have been abolished and that, instead, “technical education” – staffed by practitioners rather than academics incentivised to focus on research – should have been better valued in its own right.

That debate about the extent to which a professional focus in higher education is compatible with an academic one is mirrored in many European countries, and various current developments make the issue particularly pointed. The launch of professional doctorates in the Netherlands’ universities of applied sciences marks a bold new development. Portugal’s polytechnics are currently lobbying to be allowed to rebrand themselves as universities. And while German technical universities will remain in a separate administrative category from traditional academic universities, plans are afoot to allow them, for the first time, to award PhDs.

It is a debate that rolls up questions about innovation policy, quality assurance, funding efficiency, social equity and straightforward snobbery. No wonder, then, that feelings can run high.

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In Germany, of course, research is driven primarily by the country’s renowned networks of research institutions, including those run by the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz and Leibniz associations. Research is also carried out in universities – but not, until recently, in those designated universities of applied science, known in German as Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften, or HAWs.

When they were established in the 1970s, HAWs (then known as Fachhochschulen) were regarded as “some kind of second-class university”, says Isabel Roessler, a senior project manager at German thinktank the Centre for Higher Education (CHE). Their diplomas carried an “FH” label that, for civil servants, meant a lower salary. But since 1999, the Europe-wide Bologna Process has driven a standardisation process that has ironed out many such inconsistencies, and it is now reaching doctoral level. The governments of Germany’s 16 Länder, or federal states, have relative autonomy over higher education, and in 2016 the central Land of Hesse became the first to extend doctoral awarding powers to its HAWs.

When, on 10 October that year, Fulda University of Applied Sciences president Karim Khakzar was handed a certificate by Hesse’s then science minister, Boris Rhein, he was, “to a certain extent, proud because we had fought for that right for many years, and five years before that day, nobody expected that there would be a small revolution in the system of higher education in Germany,” Khakzar says. “Our politicians were hesitating, and there was a lot of opposition from traditional universities.”

The German University Association, which represents only traditional universities, was among the naysayers. It still argues that HAWs lack the right research environment to nurture budding investigators. The legally defined ceiling on academics’ weekly teaching hours in HAWs is double that of teachers in traditional universities, and HAWs’ lack of history in research means that their research-active faculty have few or even no peers to lean on.

“We don’t think this is a good development because it won’t increase German competitiveness on an international level,” says association spokesman Matthias Jaroch. “The creed of policy in the last 20 years was ‘you have to sharpen your profile’, but it is not sharpening the profile if you expand the doctoral degree: it is diluting it.”

Still, in 2019, Germany’s most populous Land, North Rhine-Westphalia, also began allowing its 21 HAWs to award doctorates, and Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Württemberg followed suit in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Jaroch attributes the moves partly to “good lobby work” by HAWs, partly to “pressure from constituencies” on parliamentarians, and partly to the hope that HAW doctorates will be “much cheaper” than those at traditional universities.

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However, Roessler says doctorates will cost taxpayers the same amount regardless of the host institution. Rather than politics, she says the strongest drive for expanding doctoral awarding powers had come from within academia. And now that the model is proven, politicians across Germany will “want to get their part of the cake”.

One criticism that does bear scrutiny relates to HAWs’ low research intensity. Fulda’s Khakzar admits that only about 25 per cent of his institution’s professors are as strong in research as their counterparts at traditional universities. And in North Rhine-Westphalia, only about 15 per cent of professors have the expertise to supervise PhDs, estimates Martin Sternberg, a former president of Bochum University of Applied Sciences. But the organisation Sternberg now heads, North Rhine-Westphalia’s HAW Doctoral College, is the solution, he says. A state-wide body of eight “virtual faculties” staffed from its member institutions, the college concentrates the available excellence and offers candidates more courses and interaction with active researchers than any single institution could. It has “the same strong quality measures” as any other doctorate-awarding body, Sternberg insists, and criticism comes only from the kinds of traditional universities to which “politicians give back their doctoral degrees after copying and pasting their dissertations”.

Jaroch says a better way to grow doctoral provision in universities of applied science would be to expand the cooperative programmes that have long run between them and traditional universities, with the latter retaining the sole right to award degrees. The model has proved popular worldwide, but the coordination of such programmes is tricky: hence the 2014 founding of a precursor institution to North-Rhine Westphalia’s virtual college.

For Sternberg, the cooperative model depends too much on the goodwill of traditional universities and their staff to be a stable, long-term solution. HAW-registered doctoral candidates struggle to find co-supervisors because academics in traditional universities have other priorities and typically get no funding for co-supervising. Indeed, they have “sometimes got into trouble” for co-supervising HAW students, Sternberg says.

Rows of tables with one replaced with a diploma concept
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An oversupply of doctoral graduates is a problem in many European countries, and in Germany the phenomenon has been blamed for the growing precarity of early academic careers. Does the country really need more doctors, some ask.

But HAWs’ case for being given research degree awarding powers goes beyond “us too”. Sternberg says saturation is “definitely not” an issue in the engineering and medical fields HAWs specialise in – and HAWs believe that they can do a better job than traditional universities of preparing doctoral graduates for the workforce, such as through their intimate relationships with the Mittelstand sector: small but hardy companies that may excel in a single cutting-edge technology.

“There is a strong need for these people, especially with an applied research background,” says Sternberg, whose university is at the heart of the Ruhr: a post-industrial region pinning its hopes for economic revival on higher education. HAWs also teach and research in disciplines rarely found at traditional German universities but which, nevertheless, offer scope for what Sternberg calls “fundamental research”, such as social work, physiotherapy and midwifery.

The Bologna Process taught Germany’s HAWs that “they were equal”, says Roessler. “The Fachhochschulen are very, very good, and they know they’re very good.” Moreover, “a person who needs more support will get it at a university of applied science in a much better way” than at a traditional university, she says, referring to HAW academics’ lighter supervision loads, allowing them more “quality time” with their doctoral students.

She says HAW doctoral students can also become academics more quickly than graduates of traditional universities can because many HAWs require their academics to have professional experience and some HAW doctorates offer it. For example, at Hesse’s Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, PhD candidates spend half their time working in a company.

Sternberg says HAW doctorates also offer a path into academia for first-generation students, who make up a relatively high proportion of HAW undergraduates. While he concedes that well-funded programmes could bridge the transition to a doctoral school at a traditional university, for first-generation students “it’s much easier to stay in the university of applied science”, he says.

As for status disparities, Fulda’s Khakzar believes that the distinction between traditional universities and HAWs “will disappear within the next 10 years”. And an ongoing reputational divide will be avoided by focusing on “quality, quality, quality. We have to prove what we offer in teaching and research fulfils the highest requirements.”

But that focus on quality does not mean abandoning HAWs’ applied research strengths, he says. A new funding agency called the German Agency for Transfer and Innovation is slated to hand out €‎50 million (£43 million) in applied research funding when it opens later this year and will ramp up spending to €‎250 million by 2026. “It is a clear political sign saying: ‘We have to support the universities of applied sciences,’” Khakzar says.

As for Roessler, she believes that parity of esteem has already largely been achieved. “Now, it does not matter where you got your PhD from,” she says. “No one will ask.”

However, in Europe’s far south-west, not everyone is convinced that reputational divides can be so easily bridged.

Founded in the 1990s, Portugal’s 25 polytechnics have since 2009 been subject to a requirement that a proportion of their staff hold PhDs, rather than having work experience in their vocational disciplines. And the oversupply of PhD graduates in Portugal is such that, according to Cristina Sin, a researcher at the Lusophone University of Humanities and Technologies in Lisbon, doctoral graduates are much easier than practitioners to recruit, transforming the polytechnic workforce into one with research aspirations.

“There are pockets within polytechnics that actually do excellent research with a high scientific impact,” she says. “At the same time, they feel frustration because they cannot award doctoral degrees.”

That issue will be resolved if a citizens’ petition to parliament, launched by former and current polytechnic leaders, becomes law. The petition – which has now been drafted into a bill and debated by parliament – calls for Portuguese polytechnics to be rebranded as universities. But Sin fears that UK-style stratification “will naturally follow, because everyone will know that they used to be polytechnics”.

Pedro Teixeira is a professor of economics at the University of Porto, director of the university’s Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies (CIPES) and Portugal’s current secretary of state for higher education. He says there is political momentum behind the push to “accelerate the blurring of the binary system”. However, “if you make institutions more comparable, this plays against younger institutions and those that have more recent credentials in research,” he says, citing Australia and the UK as examples. “You don’t create a research culture by decree.”

Teixeira’s colleague at CIPES, Alberto Amaral, says polytechnics should beware of another risk of university status. “What happened in Australia when they unified the system? They forced the colleges to merge or to be integrated into other institutions. Probably the same will happen in Portugal,” he says.

In Teixeira’s view, the Portuguese parliament is most likely to approve a partial abolition of the binary divide, whereby polytechnics continue to be in a separate institutional category but are permitted to award PhDs. “However, the regional pressures for having their polytechnics [renamed] as universities are very strong,” he adds. And he is concerned that this “political manoeuvring” could trump an overarching vision of what the Portuguese higher education sector should look like.

He notes that there are ways to partially integrate universities and polytechnics that enhance the strengths of both, citing the higher and vocational institutions that operate on the same sites in the Azores, Portugal’s mid-Atlantic archipelago. “In a sense, you have the binary system inside an institution,” he says, which is a logical choice for isolated regions. But “this is the kind of conversation we’re not having”.

As an example of a more strategic dilution of a binary divide, Teixeira cites Norway, where there were only four universities until 2005, after which any institution offering at least four doctoral programmes became able to adopt the title. According to Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector of education at the University of Oslo, that law change has prompted growth in PhD offerings throughout Norway as institutions sought university status. He says a national committee is currently reviewing the criteria for becoming a university, with suggestions including a further lowering of the required number of doctoral programmes.

But why are higher education institutions so keen on obtaining university title?

The answer is that for all the standardisation brought about by the Bologna Process, universities still retain their status at the pinnacle of the education pyramid. “There is an inherent drive for those not belonging to the chosen few to become like them because there’s prestige and money attached to that,” says Jeroen Huisman, who heads the Centre for Higher Education Governance at Belgium’s Ghent University. “Leaders of those institutions will always look for opportunities to upgrade.”

For his part, Huisman is relatively relaxed about that phenomenon, noting that there is little evidence of any negative consequences. Support for retaining binary divides is “to some extent a bit of snobbery, in the sense that the jury is still out on whether diversity is really harmed”.

Aside from the political and academic drivers of expanded doctoral provision, Huisman notes that many jobs are becoming more technical or analytical, requiring graduates with research skills. This has created a “knowledge society narrative”, he says, and “many higher institutions are looking at how they can contribute to that”.

A related development is that some PhD programmes are becoming more vocational. “Ten years ago, you would have been laughed at if you had said, ‘Let’s do job market preparation in our doctoral schools,’” says Huisman. “But now it’s really accepted that we prepare students for employment in a much broader sense.”

A step further is the rise of the professional doctorate, aimed at working professionals. These have existed for several decades in some anglophone countries. Rosemary Deem, an emeritus professor of higher education management at Royal Holloway, University of London, helped develop the first wave of professional doctorates in the UK in the 1990s, for instance. She says their format can vary considerably, but research is focused on the candidate’s professional realm and theses tend to be about half the length of the 80,000-100,000 words typical for a PhD.

European universities have generally been slower to adopt professional doctorates. When Delft University of Technology graduate Frank van der Zwan arrived at the UK’s Cranfield University in the early 2000s to do a PhD, for instance, he had not even heard of professional doctorates. “I only became aware that there were different types of doctorates I could do from sitting next to my neighbour, finding out he was doing a professional doctorate in engineering,” he says.

Now, however, van der Zwan is overseeing an €80 million pilot of professional doctorates at the Netherlands’ 36 universities of applied science (Hogescholen, or HBOs). Several specific fields have been designated: energy and sustainability; health and wellness; leisure, tourism and hospitality; maritime studies; art and creative industries; education; and technology and digitisation.

“What we hear from our partners in industry and society is that they’re looking for researching professionals that are able to investigate, analyse, design, experiment and bring about change in their professional field,” says Maurice Limmen, president of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Science (VH). The qualifications are likely to take less time to earn than PhDs – three or four years part-time – and candidates for some programmes will deliver a portfolio at the end, rather than a thesis.

“We don’t want to fall into the trap of simply copying the academic tradition,” explains van der Zwan. “We want to ask, ‘What does a professional doctorate in hospitality need to deliver at the end of the student’s project to clearly demonstrate that he or she has that doctoral level?’ That can be completely different for someone who is working in the field of energy, or healthcare or the arts.”

Despite their different format, Limmen is determined that professional doctorates – “at a doctoral level, but with a professional focus” – should have parity of esteem with PhDs. And Huisman – who taught a doctor of business administration (DBA) programme in higher education management at the University of Bath – agrees that it would be a mistake to think of a professional doctorate as a poor man’s – or a poor higher education institution’s – PhD. In that sense, HBOs should not think: “If we can’t offer a ‘real’ PhD, let’s go for an alternative that fits our mission and ambition,” he says.

“There is something distinctive about this professional doctorate,” he says. “It’s not necessarily less valuable. It has different purposes. It’s not always preparing students for academic life: it is to increase skills and understanding, and to use those in practice and in policy.”

So what does all this growth in European doctoral provision portend? Data from the European Tertiary Education Register show that there was actually little change between 2011 and 2019 in the number of institutions with doctoral degree awarding powers: “The PhD remains relatively rare,” Huisman says. Nevertheless, the expansion of doctoral education to both new players and new formats could amount to a “massification of the PhD” – with unforeseeable consequences, he warns.

“People are knocking at the door of the universities and saying, ‘You should not have this monopoly,’” Huisman says. “And other institutions are starting to challenge that idea by offering [doctoral] degrees themselves or offering an alternative. These will be interesting times, I think, because these dynamics have never occurred before. This holy grail of the university has never been contested.”

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Reader's comments (4)

Here we go - the economics of supply and demand of HE is fascinating here - as the price of a degree has risen in the UK, from a negative price in the 1980s, when we had student grants, to now, its value has fallen, because everyone, including the cat, has one. The real price of a degree, not just te 9k++ a year debt but the cost of food, lodgings, and above all the opportunity cost of foregone earnings, totals well over 100k. This has happened because employers have been able to ditch that tedious on-the-job training and farm the task out to university, where the student bears the cost. Then Masters went down a similar road (OK the cat hasn't got one yet, but it will). And now the same with PhDs. Errr hang on, won't the escalating cost of HE versus its diminishing value put off propsective students, who may decide they;re better off settling for a lower paid job straightaway after leaving school. Well that's already happening. Maybe we could then have some radical employer ploicies to upskill the workforce, I know, how about 'on-the-job training'? Or we just settle for an unskilled workforce, probably all they'll be doing by 2035 is cleaning the robots, who will do all the really complex stuff.
I'd be interested to know how/ whether the PhD variant - doctorate by Published Work - fits (or not) in to the scheme of things discussed in the article. This form of PhD enables individuals to reflect on their previously published academic and/ or practice materials; through a 20,000 or so word commentary or narrative. For more, see - Smith, S. (2015) PhD by Published Work. London: Macmillan James
In Ireland it is only recently that there has been a transition from Institutes of Technology to Technological Universities. This only commenced in 2018 where a clear (and challenging) process was put in place for this transition ( This is very far from a simple rebranding as has happened in many countries and means that the new Technological Universities have significant research and associated PhD supervisory capacity. I think that the lesson is that calling any institution a university devalues the meaning of university.
The UK provides a very good example in this matter, in my opinion, with its various modern universities ranked among the top 500 to top 800 globally. When it comes to the structures, distinct features, and equivalence to the traditional PhD, the Doctoral Degree Characteristics published by the QAA also sets out a very good example of a framework in this context. I must note that any generalisation on the specifics of a UK professional doctorate, which is still an “academic research degree”, should be based on knowledge and information on the topic. As these are professional-practice-based research degrees, the aim, means and the end product of the research conducted varies across professions as well as academic disciplines, so generalisation requires utmost care. For example, for the DBA specifically, although generally the expected word count can be slightly lower than (not half of) that of a traditional PhD (e.g., 80k vs. 65k.), this can vary across institutions, professions, the research topics, and perhaps even the candidates. The word count of my own DBA thesis is well above 80k, for example. This comes with an additional requirement for the DBA, that of a significant organisational change in the real business context of the reearcher in relation to the DBA research, one of the distinctions of the DBA from the traditional PhD.