Competition or co-operation?

As degree completion numbers increase, co-operation between universities in doctoral training should be strengthened to ensure a high quality level. One concrete measure is the establishment of the doctoral courses website, writes Tapio Määttä.

Competition is often thought to be characteristic of university work. There are situations during an academic career, beginning with the application of doctoral thesis funding, where researchers and teachers are put in a competitive setting with others in the same phase of their careers.

Universities are also thought to be in a competitive position in relation to one another. This is often referred to as a zero-sum game: the success of one university is only possible at the expense of others.

Could more success in the academic world be had by investing in co-operation? Let’s take doctoral training as an example. This is a topical example, as growing RDI investments call for significant increases in the number of completed doctoral degrees and more efficient doctoral training. The current rate of 1,600 new doctors per year would need to increase by up to 1,000 more each year. There is a need for university co-operation in doctoral training now more than ever.

After the termination of graduate schools that were separately funded by the Academy of Finland, many academics bemoaned that it would also mark the end of good field-specific national co-operation and the related networking of doctoral researchers.

It is interesting to note that not everyone was satisfied with just bemoaning. Some fields decided to continue the national co-operation of graduate schools or to build a new national co-operation network. Examples include the Finnish doctoral programme in business studies KATAJA, the national drug research doctoral programme network FinPharmaNet and the language-related doctoral programme network Langnet.

There is no returning to separately funded national graduate schools, but comparable activity is possible even without separate funding. Some national doctoral training co-operation networks have resources of their own, while others have operated on the basis of reciprocal co-operation. Both models are possible.

Structures and leadership to support deeper co-operation

Deepening co-operation, however, always requires structures that support it and academic leadership that encourages it. What is needed within universities right now, in my opinion, is managerial communication that encourages closer co-operation and an internal funding model that supports it.

The doctoral courses website that opened in mid-February is one concrete way of strengthening university co-operation in doctoral training. It enables field-specific doctoral programmes to open their courses up to doctoral researchers in other universities. The doctoral courses website lists doctoral courses that are available to all doctoral researchers that have the right to study at one of the Finnish partner universities. In spring 2023, the eight partner universities have opened up a total of 39 courses in different disciplines.

The doctoral courses website is based on a partner agreement between the universities involved. Money does not move from university to university, but the universities that offer courses to students from other universities are compensated in the Ministry of Education and Culture’s financing model according to the number of credits produced. Currently, the co-operation is very lucrative: each co-operative credit brings the university 460 euro. For example, at the University of Eastern Finland, the co-operative courses are also a part of the university’s internal financing model, that is, any department that opens up its courses to doctoral researchers from other universities stands to benefit financially.

The most important justification for organising events for doctoral researchers in co-operation is quality. It is important for a doctoral researcher to receive feedback on their research from other researchers at all stages of the research process. Networking within your own field is also an important part of the thesis process. Jointly organised post-graduate courses are a natural way of ensuring that each doctoral researcher has the opportunity to network and receive diverse feedback on their work.

I firmly believe that universities should increase their co-operation in, for example, doctoral training. It makes sense from both a financial and doctoral training quality perspective.

Tapio Määttä
Academic Rector
University of Eastern Finland


Tapio Määttä was named Academic of the Year in 2021 (article in Finnish).