22 SES 11 B, Doctoral Programs and PhD-students
The research question the paper will address is ‘How can we explain a current high rate of mental health and wellbeing problems amongst doctoral students in universities in many countries and what (other than blaming individuals) could be done about reducing those problems and at the same time enhancing doctoral education? Severe mental health incidence among doctoral researchers is now much higher than even amongst other highly educated members of the general population (Flaherty 2018 ). This can lead to theses not being finished, loss of significant academic and research talent and considerable emotional, physical and often financial costs to those experiencing mental health problems (Levecquea et al. 2017). The paper, by taking a sociological rather than psychological approach to doctoral researchers’ mental health, will consider the possible effects of current higher education organizational climates and contexts and changing academic cultures (Musselin 2009; Musselin 2013) on doctoral candidates. It will also assess the extent to which current debates about the purposes of higher education (Collini 2012; Docherty 2011) and dilemmas faced by heads of universities in relation to core purposes (Swartz et al. 2018), are relevant to the situation of European doctoral education. The prevalence of new managerialist approaches to running universities (Deem et al. 2007), including performance management of academics and the growth of ‘boardism’, a term used to describe a sharper focus on external stakeholder participation and power within university governance (Veiga et al. 2015) have increasingly made public higher education institutions seem more like businesses than educational establishments. At the same time, concern about doctoral candidates’ deteriorating mental health is leading in some parts of Europe to more emphasis on how to ameliorate this (e.g there is a series of funded university initiatives currently taking place in the UK). However, initiatives are often aimed solely at individual students and/or supervisors and whilst this is undoubtedly important, here the concern is to also to find a broader way forward; to this extent it could be seen as part of a ‘public sociology’ (Burawoy 2005 ) that could inform doctoral education wellbeing for all by paying attention to collective and organizational factors. Indeed, it is suggested that, by focusing on doctoral education as a force for public good, rather than perceiving doctoral education as a public good (Locatelli 2017 ), we could both support wellbeing amongst doctoral candidates and at the same time start to make changes to the dominant mode of operation of universities in the early 21st century. The paper discusses the extent to which doctoral degrees have become just another commodity (Nerad and Heggelund 2008), with doctoral candidates from a range of disciplines and countries shaped to fit that commodity by being made ultra-competitive and egotistic (particularly in scientific disciplines). It is questioned whether this is indeed either helpful or necessary. The final section of the paper, noting that debates about public good and higher education have tended to concentrate on undergraduates (Marginson 2018), is on how European doctoral researchers can be better prepared to look outside as well as inside HE for their future careers and also make a genuine contribution to the public good, whether in an employment capacity or in the community.
The paper analyses processes and higher education policies (using literature, documentary and media sources at European, country and institution level), which affect the cultures of universities as organisations and filter into the environment of doctoral researchers. The positioning of doctoral education in a massified and increasingly marketised system of public universities in and beyond Europe is significant in that this includes not only dramatic changes from academic self-governance to rule by managers, HR directors and governing bodies but is is also embedded in a major political shift to the right in both Europe and North America (Lazaridis et al. 2016; Norris and Inglehart 2019 ). This includes not only political parties but also grassroots movements such as the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ who have been active on the streets in France and Belgium in 2018-19. The right tend to attack both ‘experts’ (which includes academics) as well as some specific subjects such as gender studies, which is seen as an ideology not an academic discipline (Pereira 2017). Such developments make life uncomfortable for higher education institutions and their leaders but also for students, academics and doctoral candidates. Secondly, the paper offers a consideration of the longstanding debate about what universities are for (Collini 2012). As universities have increased their student intakes and redoubled their efforts to raise money, undertake research, collaborate with industry and get high rankings in league tables (Swartz et al. 2018), questions are being asked about who should pay for higher education and also whether it should be more than just a training camp for young people before they enter the labour market (Collini 2012). Both students and academics are involved in these debates as well as the public. The 2018 UK UCU pensions strike, for example, began as a dispute about academics’ pension benefits and ended with both staff and students questioning the corporate university as well as holding ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ debates. French school students have protested about higher education-related exams becoming more selective. Doctoral researchers often witness these protests at first hand. Yet the contextual location of doctoral education typically focuses most on employment prospects (McAlpine and Emmioğlu 2015). Whilst careers obviously do matter, doctoral education might also be able to contribute to the public good more generally and thus show higher education in a different light than the one shone on it by right wing political movements.
The paper suggests that one way for European HE institututions to get out of the doctoral researchers’ mental health impasse (Levecquea et al. 2017), which is itself exacerbated by policy shifts seeing universities as business-like organisations driving knowledge economies, whilst requiring ever more stringent surveillance of academics’ research and teaching performances, is to consider in what ways we might move away from seeing doctoral graduates and theses as ‘products’ (Locatelli 2017’s education as a public good) to regarding doctoral education as ‘for public good’ (Locatelli 2017). This could be achieved in a number of different ways including encouraging doctoral researchers to learn about how to engage with public understanding of science, social science and arts\humanities, how to act as public intellectuals, how to rescue life long learning as a community led activity (Mayo 2019), rather than experts telling learners what to think and also how to work with disadvantaged young people in schools and tertiary colleges (such as in the UK’s Brilliant Club concept where early stage researchers go into schools). Burawoy’s idea of ‘public sociology’ is an example of a strategy that would follow this kind of pattern (Burawoy 2005 ). ‘Public sociology’ is seen by Burawoy as different from professional, critical and policy sociologies in that it focuses on applying social science knowledge in the public arena for public benefit in civil society. It is not suggested that only social science doctoral researchers are able to engage in public sphere activities, since the wider engagement of both doctoral researchers (and subsequently, doctoral graduates) in making public inaccessible academic knowledge in order to facilitate debating broad societal concerns, values and goals and/or offering co-created life long learning opportunities could be applied to almost any discipline. and would constitute a new phase of European doctoral education.
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