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Doctoral education has a major role to play in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. EUA-CDE Head Alexander Hasgall explores this, as well as how the goals, in turn, can benefit doctoral education.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become an important framework and inspiration for policy development. Notably, they are even influencing the institutional strategies of universities at various levels, including in research and education. SDG goal number four explicitly aims to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” Other goals on “gender equality and reduced inequalities” (goal five) or the promotion of “just, peaceful and inclusive societies” (goal sixteen) require high quality education. Moreover, investment in research is necessary for the achievement of all the SDGs – be it to develop new technologies, inform better policies or to promote societal debates.

As a place where education and research meet, doctoral education is key to advancing the challenging agenda of completing the goals by 2030. Doctoral education, organised through doctoral schools or doctoral programmes in the vast majority of universities, contribute to training highly qualified scholars and knowledge workers for many different areas of society. They provide scientific and transversal skills, as well as a unique system of engagement and exchange. European doctoral education is adopting leading roles in addressing the SDGs.

A good example of doctoral education providing a meeting point is found in interdisciplinarity. While scholarship is generally based on traditional disciplines, it is also necessary to create spaces where disciplines come together to tackle unsolved issues from different perspectives. This is necessary in order to face the grand challenges that the SDGs address for all of us. Doctoral schools do precisely this by gathering doctoral candidates from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. According to an EUA survey on doctoral education in 2018, about 40% of European universities organise their doctoral education at least to some extent around diverse, yet connected themes like water management, energy and migration, while 14% do this to a great extent or always.

Doctoral education is also highly international. In Western European countries between 25% and 40% of the doctoral candidates come from abroad. Through “co-tutelles”, that is joint supervision between two or more universities, agreements and other measures, institutions from different parts of the world work together, leading to global capacity building and a global partnership for sustainable development (goal seventeen). At the same time, the majority of doctoral candidates are pursuing careers outside of academia, in some countries up to 90%. It is precisely this international, intersectoral and interdisciplinary dimension of doctoral education that enables new approaches and exchange opportunities to be found that are not possible elsewhere.

Doctoral schools are also the places where the skills necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals are gained – both for inside and outside of academia. This includes the ability to deal with ethical dilemmas, to assess the potential and risk of new technologies, and to communicate appropriately with society. The responsibility of universities in research and innovation requires creating and sustaining space within doctoral education where awareness is exercised and new generations of researchers have what it takes to face and shape a sustainable future.

On the flip side, the SDGs also contribute to strengthening doctoral education - for instance, by opening funding from public and private sources. In practice, SDG-related projects like the 25+5 SDG Cities include doctoral candidates as researchers. Another good example of opportunities for global exchange in the area of doctoral education are the "SDG Graduate Schools" supported by the German DAAD, which are dedicated to joint research on the SDGs between a European and a non-European university partner.

The SDG demand for social equality and universal access also provides an important development as it is adopted by the doctoral education community. In many European countries, the financial support of doctoral candidates remains so low that it is difficult to pursue a doctorate without personal financial resources. Here, governments and funders are asked to set the right financial conditions so that a doctorate does not have to bring exaggerated risk. Widening participation in research throughout Europe is already a challenge, and even more so globally. And when it comes to interdisciplinarity, as mentioned, this requires building new structures which also needs funding.

Doctoral schools are also addressing the SDGs as responsible organisations, but with challenges. For instance, an increasing number of universities are restricting air travel as each flight emits significant amounts of greenhouse gas. However, given the need for researchers to gather international experience and form a global network, such restrictions can harm this international experience. Target conflicts can have dramatic effects when they affect the future of young people.

Another challenge is a limited focus on technical solutions to global problems that favour the natural sciences. Here it should be clear that the big challenges of the present day equally require social sciences and humanities. Finally, we should not forget that the base of successful research is the curiosity of the researcher and not the pressure to produce immediate impact.

Doctoral schools and doctoral programmes are unique places where the next generation of researchers meet. They are places where they are prepared for the research environment of the future, which may significantly differ from that of today. In this regard, investing in doctoral education is an investment in a sustainable future.



Alexander Hasgall

Dr. Alexander Hasgall is Head of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE). He is responsible for the largest European network in this field, covering 36 countries and bringing together a community of academic leaders and professionals from over 250 universities awarding doctoral degrees and institutions working on issues related to doctoral education and research training.

Before assuming this position, he coordinated the Swiss University Rectors conference’s “performances de la recherche en sciences humaines et sociales” programme on research evaluation in the social sciences and humanities and was based in the University of Geneva.

Alexander studied philosophy and history at the University of Zurich and the Free University of Berlin. He received his Doctorate discourse of truth, justice and recognition in dealing with the last military dictatorship in Argentina. Outside of the higher education sector, Alexander acquired different working experiences in the NGO-Sector incl. being a human rights observer in Guatemala, in market research and as a freelance journalist.

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