Academic partners in a city-wide doctoral ecosystem

The 2022 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference held at Vlerick Business School in Brussels focused on the broad theme of doctoral ecosystems. Stakeholders were identified, and their expectations were discussed. Among these stakeholders, one that is often overlooked and taken for granted, caught our attention: other local higher-education institutions.

How can a doctoral programme leverage local academic partnerships and interact with peers in the local community? Although many institutions work informally in collaboration with other local partners, how such collaborations are organised remains a relative blind spot in doctoral education management. A particularly interesting and successful case of doctoral collaborations between co-located business schools in one major city for over almost 50 years is the quadripartite PhD programme involving Concordia University, HEC Montréal, McGill University, and UQAM.

Sharing and coordinating a joint offering

When the initial agreement binding the four schools in Montréal came into force, the purpose of this collaboration was to grant a joint PhD degree. This objective was attainable provided the four institutions could equitably benefit from public funding. The agreement was revamped when the Québec government ceased its funding, withdrawing public financial support for the programme. Confronted with lower resources, a four-stamp degree could no longer be granted, henceforth each institution would award its own PhD degree to its own students. Nevertheless, encouraged by the achievements of their joint programme, the four historical partners persevered and continued to collaborate.

In its current revised form, the four schools offer a common course catalogue to the whole Montréal-based PhD student body. A doctoral student can choose whichever courses are of interest to him or her, irrespective of the institution where the student is enrolled, their associated credits are validated. Students can access around 150 distinct modules with little or no redundancy or overlap. One of the aims of such collaboration is to offer the widest possible range of doctoral courses and to attain economies of scale.

impact of contexts - doctoral ecosystems

New courses can be created by one of the four partners, provided the other three are informed of this intention in advance. If two or more partners have a similar idea, the same course will not be duplicated but developed jointly. Duplication is averted through collaboration at the course design level, while possible inconsistencies or scheduling issues can be foreseen. Collaborations depend on the involvement of academics. Instructors who teach complementary courses at different institutions are positively encouraged to work together on course content and scheduling. Through this grassroots-level cooperation, awkward situations can be avoided, such as where two complementary courses are scheduled at the same time or concurrently but in two different precincts, making attendance impossible. Instructors also cooperate on course design to circumvent strong overlaps in the case of complementary modules so that students do not have unnecessary repetitions in the teaching they receive.

A joint programme in the service of a large student population

As four major and internationally renowned institutions collaborate to deliver a high-quality doctoral programme, it is reasonable to expect a substantial number of participants on the programme. Overall, approximately 100 academic staff members contribute to the joint PhD programme by teaching, supervising, and/or reviewing theses. All these individuals serve a large doctoral student population as shown opposite.

Formal joint governance

table of phd student numbersAlthough this quadripartite PhD programme rests upon mutual adjustment at the grassroots level, it is overseen by a joint governance body with (in)formal supervisory roles.

As the four partners share the same programme and the same course catalogue, it goes without saying that the very first governance mechanism relates to admissions. Students attending a course in one institution must be considered eligible. Therefore, the four schools set common admission criteria such as master’s degree marks, GMAT scores and English proficiency levels. Practically, students apply to one of the four institutions based on being awarded its specific degree upon completion. Each school receives and processes individual applications and shortlist applicants who meet the admission criteria. The shortlist is shared with the other three partners in the coalition. A joint admissions board examines the four shortlists and grants final approval for enrolment.

Once students are enrolled on the PhD programme in Montréal, a joint Review Committee regularly assesses their progress. In this forum, doubts or concerns regarding certain students can be raised and collectively addressed. Such situations can relate to the student’s actual capability of successfully completing the programme, in which case alternative solutions are sought. It is also possible that a current student feels uncomfortable in the institution where he or she is enrolled and needs to be transferred to another within or, at worst, outside the coalition.

Informal experience sharing forum

The quadripartite PhD programme in Montréal operates successfully not just because of formal governance structures but foremost because it offers a unique forum for experience sharing. PhD academic directors from the four institutions, together with any other involved academic and professional staff members can exchange information around all sorts of issues. Ad hoc or more structural solutions to problems can be found. The most eloquent hot topic in the past few years has unsurprisingly been programme functioning and PhD candidates’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns.

Informal governance of the quadripartite PhD programme is not just a matter for academic or professional staff. In their capacity as core stakeholders of this coalition, PhD candidates and alumni contribute to the joint experience. Admittedly, each institution has its own PhD candidate union and alumni association, both of which represent their concerns before their home institution. They also congregate annually to address common problems, thereby acting in parallel with their senior counterparts.

Competition for resources and sustaining a clear identity

Notwithstanding extensive formal and informal collaboration around the shared doctoral programme in Montréal, the four institutions remain competitors. With the termination of funding from the Québec government, competition for resources amongst the four business schools in Montréal has intensified. Henceforth they have been competing not only for finances, but also for academics and students.

Importantly, each of the four partners retains its sovereignty over granting the PhD and thereby expanding its own alumni network. The latter is especially important for the four schools since graduate placement counts in international rankings. Attracting the best student to one’s programme increases the likelihood of graduates working in the most prestigious institutions and thereby nourishing a business school’s reputation. Unsurprisingly, the four schools work hard to maintain their distinct characteristics and identities within the coalition. In particular, the two francophone schools, HEC Montréal and UQAM, sustain their linguistic uniqueness in an anglophone world, attracting students that Concordia or McGill could not have reached. Conversely, the two Anglophone schools cultivate their linguistic specificity in a francophone province where the needs of English speakers (who represent a minority) need to be met.

Doctoral collaboration: key success factors

Due to its longevity, the joint doctoral programme in Montréal has developed its own identity, with common goals superseding any individual institution’s own interests.

The Montréal doctoral collaboration involves two anglophone and two francophone business schools. It offers, therefore, the latter greater international visibility in an English-speaking region. Surrounded by anglophone Western Canada and the United States, francophone HEC Montréal and UQAM could otherwise be academically isolated. Not only are language, culture, and identity significant factors driving this collaborative programme, but having such a powerful neighbour and competitor as the United States also plays an important role. Other countries which are smaller than their neighbours, such as Austria compared with Germany, New Zealand next to Australia, or Vietnam, which neighbours the People’s Republic of China, may potentially support such alliances.

Such collaborations are possible thanks to favourable national institutional and regulatory environments. First, I argue that academic competitiveness and university rankings, which discourage collaborations should not be central to higher education policy, as in Australia and in the United Kingdom. When universities are evaluated solely on their individual academic performance there may be fewer possibilities for deep collaborations. Second, competition should not be associated with institutional rivalry, with the risk of the stronger institution draining the power of their weaker counterparts. Such collaboration would be difficult (yet not impossible) in a country like France, which is characterised by a dual system where state-owned universities and Grandes Écoles are frequently accused of unfair competition.

Overall, willingness to collaborate for the benefit of the community is the most important success factor for this type of doctoral collaboration between competitors in the same city. The sustained success of the coalition in Montréal relies on multiple actors’ common interests and commitment to this unique doctoral consortium.

Academic partners in a city wide doctoral ecosystem

See more articles from Vol.17 Issue 2 – Towards healthy doctoral systems.

Latest posts by Vassili Joannides de Lautour (see all)

Leave a Comment