Report Open Access

Evaluation of the FWF Doctoral Programme (DK Programme)

Ecker, Brigitte; Kottmann, Andrea; Meyer, Susanne; Brandl, Bianca

In the winter term 2013 a total of 27,634 doctoral students were enrolled at Austrian universities and a total of 2,165 students obtained a doctoral degree; thereof 204 (9.4%) students graduated in a PhD Programme. In total 7,158 doctoral students were employed at Austrian universities in 2012. These numbers include those doctoral students with temporary positions who were funded by competitive means, as provided by the funding programmes of the FWF. In total the FWF as the most important funding agency for basic research in Austria funded 1,967 doctoral candidates in 2013.
In the period from 2004 to 2013 the FWF Doctoral Programme funded 1,121 doctoral candidates. From these 302 (27%) have already successfully completed their doctoral degree, while 756 doctoral candidates had the status of an ‘on-going’ student at the time of data collection. In this period the FWF received about 135 DK proposals, from these 42 were selected for funding in an international peer review. The budget for these 42 Doktoratskollegs (DK) amounts to 130.6 million Euros. In the recent years the number of first proposals for the DK Programme has been increasing. This is also due to a change in the governmental steering of higher education: Different incentives to increase the acquisition of competitive means have been implemented. However, as the FWF has to face serious budget constraints the approval rate of new proposals has been strongly decreasing in the recent years. In 2013 the approval rate of proposals for the first funding period was at 31% related to the number of proposals that have been handed in. Looking at the budget that has been applied for about 24% have been funded in 2013.
A special characteristic of the FWF DK programme (compared to other FWF funding schemes) is that it is the only programme that funds excellent research as well as the training of young researchers. The funding of the training of young researchers aims in particular at establishing a well-functioning and excellent training environment for the most talented young researchers.


The significance of the FWF DK Programme
The vision to create and support an excellent environment for doctoral training that should serve as a role model across disciplines has proven to be very appropriate. So far, the idea to change the cultures of doctoral training also in the Social Sciences and Humanities fundamentally has not been realized to its fullest extent. Different reasons account for this: on the one hand the DK implemented in these disciplines are still quite young. On the other hand it has to be considered for these disciplines that the master-apprentice model is deeply ingrained in their doctoral training cultures. When looking at the overall performance of the DK programme, its impact on doctoral training at Austrian universities, and the incentives that the programme provided for the reform of doctoral training it can be stated that the DK Programme has achieved these goals to a very high extent. With the DK Programme new forms of doctoral training, in particular structural doctoral training based on excellent research, have been implemented as role models at Austrian universities. The DK Programme appeals high-level researchers and is rated as an excellence programme by institutions inside and outside academia. In this respect stakeholders emphasise the importance of the quality assurance mechanisms that have been established by the FWF; in particular the international peer review is seen as a major factor for these achievements.


How does the DK Programme perform?
The FWF DK Programme performs very well, in particular in the Life Sciences where almost half of the DK that have been funded DK since 2004 have been established. As main success factors the interdisciplinary approach,
IHS – CHEPS – AIT – Evaluation of the FWF Doctoral Programme (DK Programme) - 11
the team building among students and faculty, the building of a critical mass in specific research fields and the promotion of visibility can be mentioned. The possibility to include associated doctoral candidates is very much welcomed as it further contributes to the visibility of a DK. Also, DK gain more visibility the longer they are established.
The long funding of up to 12 years at maximum builds an important incentive for Priniciple Investigators to apply for a DK; also the possibility to promote and train bright, talented early stage researchers is an asset to apply for a DK. A further asset of the programme is its bottom-up principle. Here researchers are allowed to choose their research topics freely, i.e. they are not bound to any thematical limitation of the funding scheme.
Most of the DK are established in research fields where universities have already built up competences and allocate ressources. Here in particular the Special Research Centers (SFB) of the FWF and the Christian Doppler Labatories play an important role as they provide additional resources for the DK. The strength of collaboration is determined by the discipline. In the Social Sciences and Humanities the DK often collaborate with stand-alone research projects. All in all, the majority of Principal Investigators stated that the DK Programme is the only funding programme (besides the Special Research Programs) that supports the establishment of sustainable research capabilities at Austrian universities.

Internationalisation
In the DK internationalisation is mainly facilitated by (1) the recruitment of international doctoral candidates and (2) the optional fourth year of funding for those internal doctoral candidates that have been spending three months abroad within the first three years of funding.
The recruitment of international doctoral candidates has been realized to a large extent in the DK (on average 57% of the doctoral candidates per DK come from abroad); this strongly contributes to the visibility of the DK. International visibility and the recruitment of the most talented doctoral candidates also depends on the reputation of the host institution. There are some risks associated with the international recruitment, as stakeholders reported that they are not always able to select the best students. Nonetheless, the international recruitment is very much appreciated by the majority of the respondents and regarded as an added value for the DK as well as the host universities.
As regards the rule to award a fourth year of funding in case the doctoral candidate has been abroad for about three months within the first three years of funding the majority of the Principal Investigators and the representative of doktorat.at were critical as this would couple funding too strongly to internationalisation activities. These advocates would prefer that research stays abroad should mainly serve the actual research project and the training of the individual students as some research projects would require only short stays abroad while for others longer research stays would be adequate. In this respect the respondents indicated that a more flexible regulation would be very much appreciated.
All in all, it has to be stated that the opportunities to internationalize in the DK Programme, i.e. to engage in international cooperation and networks is very much recognized as an important added value by the doctoral candidates as well as the faculty of the DK.


Funding of internal doctoral candidates
In general, internal doctoral candidates are funded for a three-year period by the DK Programme. The funding period can be extended by an additional fourth year in case the doctoral student spends a continuous research stay of three months abroad. The length of this continuous research stay is considered as too long by a number of the Principal Investigators of the DK. Also, in practice the majority of the internal doctoral candidates do not use this opportunity to prolong their funding. This requires them to either complete their doctoral studies within the time frame of three years or to raise additional funds to extend their time of doctoral studies. Here in most interviews it was reported that only a limited number of doctoral candidates has completed their doctoral study within the three year funding period.
Unfortunately, due to missing data we are not able to make reliable conlusions on the success of doctoral candidates and their time-to-degree in the DK. Because of confidentiality reasons not all data on this issue were accessible for the evaluation team. Nonetheless, different studies show that the time to degree differs by discipline (Enders and Kottmann, 2009; Bornmann and Enders, 2002). For the future we recommend to change the regulations as regards the funding periods of doctoral students. For the funding of young research talent the FWF should consider that conducting excellent and high quality research needs an adequate amount of time. Thus, the needs of the planned research should become a major factor in the determination of the funding period. Therefore it should already be stated in the project proposals whether three or four yours will be needed to complete the planned research.

Employment and gender equality
In general all internal doctoral candidates are employed in the framework of the collective agreement for an amount of 75% of full-time employment at their host institutions; that are about 30 hours per week. The possibility to employ doctoral candidates is valued as a major asset of the DK Programme by the representatives of the doctoral candidates as well as by the majority of the Principal Investigators. At some institutions, in particular at technical universities the employment is amended to a full-time position by additional funds from other project fundings etc. Only very few Principal Investigators stated that they would prefer to provide the funding by fellowships rather than by employment. This would definitely not be in line with the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers that aims at realising good working conditions for early stage researchers.
The DK Programme actively supports female talent in science, this is done by a 30% quota for females among faculty. From the data it became clear that among doctoral students nearly a balance in the participation of females and males has been achieved: on average about 46% of the students in the DK were females. At the faculty level there was a growing awareness about the goal to increase the percentage of females among the faculty members. Unfortunately the goal has not been realized yet. Depending on the discipline it is hard to realize the integration of a sufficient number of females: in some disciplines there are only a few female professors, also a lack of excellent research among female faculty was mentioned here. Most of the speakers of DK tried to compensate the lack of female faculty by increasing the number of female doctoral students. This practice confronts the speakers of DK with new challenges: practices in achieving a more family friendly work environment are discussed, additionally it was mentioned that more family friendly regulations need to be developed.


Universities’ views on the DK Programme
In the view of the university managements the FWF Doctoral Programme is an excellence scheme, the DK are internally brand marked as excellent. This view is strongly supported by the quality assurance implemented by the FWF. Because of this excellence confirmed by the FWF allows researchers to request commitment by the university management in terms of additional funds and resources. In this respect the DK are sometimes evaluated as expensive. The kind and amount of support provided for the DK strongly depends on the university’s budget and the actors involved. While representatives of the university management strongly welcome the establishment of a DK as a means to strengthen the profile of their institution. The performance agreements between the universities and the federal government also explicitly consider the establishment of new and the continuation of existent DK.


Impact of DK on doctoral training
The visibility and the impact of a DK at universities depend to a large extent on the time it has been existing at its host institution. Generally, the majority of (guest) lectures and some other training events are open to all doctoral students at the host institution. Only a number of trainings that have in particular been designed for the DK (like hands on training in laboratories) are limited to the doctoral students of the DK. To what extent the doctoral training in the DK is different from doctoral training outside a DK is mainly dependent on the discipline and also the host institution. At some departments there is actually no difference between the both forms of training, here the DK mainly provide add-ons to doctoral training like the funding of a coordinator, international recruitment, travel costs, research stays abroad, the chance to invite international guest researchers or the funding of summer schools.
There are also differences in the way doctoral training inside and outside the DK is organized. In particular in the Life Sciences structural forms of doctoral training are already common. Also in the Natural and Technical Sciences structural forms of doctoral training became more widespread (also depending on the faculty). In the Social Sciences and Humanities structural doctoral training only plays a minor role. In this disciplines the DK only function as a leverage to a very limited extent. This is also due to the fact that there are only a few DK established in these disciplines and that most of these are still young. Thus, doctoral training outside the DK is very different from training inside the DK for these disciplines, and the traditional master-apprenticeship is still prevalent here. In line with this the DK are regarded as highly specialised training centres that in particular prepare for an academic career in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
The complementary role of the DK Programme
In the recent years Austrian universities started own initiatives in structural doctoral training. These were mostly related to the developments on the European level, in particular the Bologna process. Also the implementation of the DK Programme has contributed to this development as it funds the implementation of structural elements in doctoral training. Besides this, there is a multitude of different initiatives to reform doctoral training in Austria. At the University of Vienna for example the so-called Initiativkollegs have been implemented. These are currently replaced by the Vienna Doctoral Academies and the funding of individual doctorates (uni:docs). At the University of Graz and Technical University of Graz Doctoral Schools have been implemented. Also at Medical Universities PhD programmes became more widespread as these institutions had to change their curricula in line with the Bologna reforms. Some Medical Universities also established doctoral schools, e.g. the Medical University of Graz. Here the guidelines of the FWF DK Programme served as a role model; also the quality assurance of the doctoral schools is organized by the FWF.
Summarizing these developments there are a number of initiatives and reforms implemented at universities that build on the experiences that were made within the framework of the FWF DK Programme. For the funding of doctoral candidates a number of different models have been implemented: Some universities (University of Vienna, University of Salzburg, Veterinary University) fund positions for doctoral candidates, also as part-time employment. Other universities do not fund positions for doctoral candidates in the framework of their doctoral schools (e.g. University of Klagenfurt). Some universities also provide additional positions for doctoral candidates in the FWF DK (e.g. Medical University of Vienna), other prolong the funding of doctoral candidates for a limited period in case the funding for the FWF DK stops (e.g. University of Economics Vienna).
In total all of these initiatives and activities have a common goal: they motivate to further proceed with the implementation of structural doctoral training and to increase the quality of doctoral studies in Austria. The increase in the quality of doctoral study should include a more sensitive usage of resources and synergies and the strategic linkage of those initiatives to the profile building of the universities. Also, a more tactical approach in the regulation of the so far open access to doctoral studies in Austria should be considered. Nonetheless, when considering further changes it should be clear that the resources of universities are limited, they cannot provide as many ressources as the FWF DK Programme and might in their initiatives not achieve a similar effect. In this respect it has to be stated that the FWF DK has a very important complementary role to the initiatives and activities implemented by universities.


The university’s commitment
Facing the increasing numbers of applications for the FWF DK Programme and the current budget constraints of the FWF it has to be investigated to what extent the universities will be able to increase their commitment towards the DK. In particular the question to what extent the universities can realistically contribute to the costs of a DK in order to decrease the funding provided by the FWF. Therefore in the evaluation different scenarios on the future funding of the DK have been discussed with the Principal Investigators of the DK and the managing board of universities (Rectors and Vice-Rectors). These discussions revealed that currently the universities will not be able to further contribute to the costs of the DK (besides their actual commitments). Also the fact that the FWF currently does not contribute to the overhead costs of large-scale research projects (and thus also not for the DK) needs to be considered here.
Those scenarios that described a situation where the FWF would only provide initial funding or where universities would have to cover an increasing amount of the costs of the DK were rated as inpracticable or even as an illusion given the current tight budget of Austrian universities. Only very few Principal Investigators could image that the funding of the FWF would gradually decline. Summing up the statements of the representatives of universities it can be concluded that most universities already participate to the funding of DK to a large extent (provision of additional funds, additional positions for doctoral students, provision of research infrastructure, reduction of the teaching load for Principal Investigators). In the current situation an additional contribution to the DK was seen as a too big burden for the university’s budget.


Conclusion
The evaluation of the FWF DK Programme revealed that it is functioning very well. Researchers as well as the university management evaluate the programme as an excellence scheme. The programme achieved most of its goals (good performance in research, implementation of structural elements in doctoral training, internationalisation etc.). The programme also functions as a stimulus for the further reform and improvement of doctoral training in Austria. Here the programme serves as a role model and plays via funding an important complementary role.
Nonetheless, experiences from other European countries point to an on-going further reform of doctoral training in the recent years. In particular in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway and Finland) the training component of doctoral training has become central. Also an increase in the number of doctoral graduates should be achieved in these countries. In line with these targets ministries have been changing the funding mechanism related to doctoral training, also universities have been assigned more responsibility in providing a high quality in (structural) doctoral training. In these countries doctoral training is to a large extent funded by the institutions, mostly by earmarked funds. These changes also led to change in the work of the research councils that had to reorient their funding schemes for doctoral candidates/young researchers.
So far Austria has been using two different but complementary approaches in doctoral training: on the one hand doctoral training is funded by the global budget of the universities, on the other hand additional means (as the FWF DK Programme) are allocated by competitive means. Both funding mechanism have to be regarded as indispensable and contribute to maintain doctoral training in Austria. For the future the implementation of a unit cost funding model has been included in the intergovernmental agreement. This potential development might also affect the FWF DK Programme, therefore a need to reorient the programme might be considered. Until then the FWF DK Programme should be continued under the premise to fund excellent research and the most talented doctoral students.

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