Centre for Research Education

Self-evaluation report

Background

The Centre for Research Education at the University  of Lapland features a solution, exceptional in the academic world, for the provision of high-quality research education. In the first place, the Centre serves the whole University by planning and organizing shared multidisciplinary research education for all the five faculties of the University and the Arctic Centre. Secondly, the Centre for Research Education does not offer posts for researchers and its educational provision is applicable to a variety of disciplines. The Centre seeks to provide a program which meets the educational needs of the various fields of study at the University, coordinates research and brings researchers of those fields together to constitute multidisciplinary research groups. The third function of the Centre for Research Education is to develop good common practices for ensuring the high quality of research and research education at the University.

The Centre for Research Education was founded in a situation in which the University  of Lapland set out to solve research challenges caused, by the small size and young age of the University. As a solution, the Centre utilizes the small size of the University as a specific resource which enables cooperation across the faculty borders. Initially, the Centre was hesitant about its operational idea but about three years ago this became based on the notion of professionalism in research and knowledge production. In the last few years this operational idea has become more concrete and has been tested in practice. Due to its geographical location within the Finnish university organization, the Centre has also been assigned some new tasks related to national science policy.

In organizational terms, the Centre for Research Education is part of the Department of Research Methodology, which coordinates, plans and provides teaching in research methodology and methods, statistics, applied information technology, philosophy and mathematics for all the faculties. The same department also houses the International Studies Centre (ISC) and Centre for Evaluation and Centre for Evaluation and Applied Studies. This makes the Department of Research Methodology as a pivotal centre throughout the whole university for the scientific methods, research education, applied research.

As a whole, the Centre for Research Education is a unique concept with a special foundation history. It does not correspond to the national researcher schools financed by the Finnish Ministry of Education or the research programs provided by the faculties. It is important for the reader of this report to be aware of the background of the Centre to be able to understand the following evaluative account of its operation. For the Centre for Research Education the current opportunity to participate in the national evaluation of doctoral education is a welcome one. It increases awareness in and enhances the development of short-term visions and strategies and helps in the orientation of future operations.

Implementation of self-evaluation

This self-evaluation has been carried out cooperatively by the director, administrative assistant and science secretary of the Centre for Research Education. Each of these individuals has a perspective of their own with regard to the Centre’s operation and researcher education. The director of the Centre for Research Education, Suvi Ronkainen, Professor in Research Methodology, is, together with the Advisory Board of the unit, in charge of the strategic planning and content development of the researcher education. She also acts as the chair of the Advisory Board. Administrative assistant, Hanne Alajoutsijärvi, takes care of the various aspects of the implementation of the curriculum and program, while science secretary Tuula Tolppi sees to the structural integrity of the provision and coordinates administrative and science policy cooperation between the faculties. The self-evaluation to be reported here is partly based on the information obtained through an open-ended inquiry on the operation of the Centre and the teaching provided on its courses. The inquiry was made to twelve participating researcher students.

It would also have been relevant to include the opinion of the Advisory Board but unfortunately the Board had adjourned for summer holidays by the time of the writing of this report. The voice of the Advisory Board is, however, to be heard in the text because this report draws on the action and financial plans, strategy papers, curricula, and working papers of the Centre all of which have been approved of by the Advisory Board. Moreover, as the members of the Advisory Board changed at the beginning of the year 2005, the last meeting of the previous board focused on the reflections of the previous operation. This evaluation will be commented on by the current Advisory Board in the autumn.      

a) The objectives and tasks of research education and innovations in its implementation

The Centre for Research Education has adopted a two-fold objective: It seeks to promote high-quality scientific research and train professional researchers with a multifaceted insight into the nature of research and knowledge. A professional in scientific knowledge may be active not only in academic institutions but also in other walks of life. Whether s/he works as an individual actor or as part of a community of experts, research expertise is his/her trademark. Moreover, a research professional’s field of action is international. This means both that a researcher’s physical workplace may be abroad and that wherever he or she lives research projects will be carried out as part of various international research networks and relations. Because a researcher’s task is to create expert knowledge and expertise, researcher education must also reflect such goals. One product of this way of thinking is the project for the training of professional researchers.

Besides providing multidisciplinary researcher education for all the post-graduate students of the university, the Centre for Research Education aims to strengthen the international networking and visibility of the University’s researchers and the research done.

The Centre for Research Education is also active in developing and implementing high-quality practices in researcher education. This can be seen for example in the fact that good scientific practice is not only planned and taught in the courses but also implemented in pedagogical solutions.

Moreover, the Centre has adopted the task of forming or enabling the forming of various multidisciplinary research groups in the context of educational events or researcher meetings.

Thus the Centre for Research Education has become a base for multidisciplinary study involving all the faculties and a meeting place for the researchers.

The Centre is also involved in setting the guidelines for the University’s science policy. Currently, it participates in the drafting of the University’s research strategy. By basing its educational provision on strategic guidelines the Centre itself also actively supports the implementation of the strategy. Thus the Centre has been charged with the major task of developing and promoting research activity within the University. Moreover, an original science policy –related approach is reflected in the fact that the Centre has become an unofficial channel of influence for the post-graduate students; they exert an influence on the University through the Centre for Research Education and the Centre directs its educational provision quickly and flexibly to meet their needs.       

The researcher education at the University  of Lapland disposes of the idea that post-graduate studies should aim at the production of doctoral dissertations. Instead research education is seen as a tool for developing knowledge and research related expertise and as an arena for practising such expertise. In this sense it is an innovative concept not only in terms of its idea but also in terms of its way of operation. Another innovative aspect of the concept is that it unites the post-graduate students of the various faculties and so constitutes a truly multidisciplinary environment for operation. The latter aspect arises from a previous organizational innovation which was carried out at the University of Lapland : The Centre for Research Education is administratively part of the Department of Research Methodology which houses all the units that provide instruction for the faculties in multidisciplinary terms.

b) Course contents, structures and the current environment of operation

The educational provision of the Centre for Research Education at the University  of Lapland is geared to enhancing the researchers’ professional skills and to promote practices that support the various stages of the research process and the operation of the scientific community. The curriculum consists of 50-60 credits of various courses and researcher meetings annually. The curriculum includes courses/events of the following types:

- Courses dealing with the practises of the various stages of the research process (e.g. data sessions)
- Courses promoting the researchers’ professional skills (e.g. various kinds of writing courses in different languages) 
- Closely targeted intensive research courses relating, for instance, to methods, methodology, and the philosophy of science (e.g. epistemology)
- Inspirational lectures and research seminars
- Project hatcheries and researcher meetings

The above approaches may best be described by using the words activity based, interactive, and research oriented. The research orientation of the training is reflected also in the choice of teaching staff. Nearly all teachers are researchers with a doctoral degree or professional researchers. This emphasizes the research-oriented nature of the teacher-student encounters. In the instruction, ‘teaching’ has been replaced by processes in which the participants give and receive systematic professional feedback relating to research skills and the progress of the research projects. Opportunities for inherent integration are favoured so that, for example, the teaching of research skills may be integrated with the development of academic writing skills, oral presentation skills or language proficiency. The choice of some modes of instruction is based on the fact that the post-graduate students themselves act as a research community, as peer supervisors for each other. The latter circumstance has resulted in still another new practice: supervised study group activity which is coordinated by the post-graduate students themselves and combined with course-form training days, seminars and virtual counselling. (E.g. the narrative research study group).

In autumn 2004 the Centre for Research Education started a program for the training of professional researchers. The program is offered for research oriented post-graduate students. Eleven post-graduate students have been accepted for the training, three of whom come from the University’s Faculty of Art and Design, two from the Faculty of Law, three from the Faculty of Education, and three from the Faculty of Social Sciences. The vision of the professional researcher training combines science and professionalism. The researcher develops besides field-specific knowledge general and transferable skills that may be defined as skills of knowledge production, management and expertise. In addition, an emphasis is laid in the training on social and communication skills essential for research activity. Such skills include project leadership, networking skills and techniques, academic professionalism, and ethical and multidisciplinary practices. For this reason the core of the training project consists of a multidisciplinary research group.

Then curriculum for the program includes subjects inherently relating to research practices, such as methodology, epistemology, argumentation, scientific writing and publishing. Further focuses in the program are project planning and management, consultation, and contract law. Professional researchers are also trained in information management, the creation and maintenance of national and international researcher networks and in the skills they need for acting as members of networks.   Moreover, an internationalization plan is drafted for each student in the program. Instruction is provided based on the individual needs of each participant.

The Centre for Research Education is assisted by an Advisory Board in the planning and idea- production work needed for the development of its educational provision. The Advisory Board consists of representatives of both the faculties and post-graduate students. It is involved in the planning of the educational provision of the Centre on a more general level including the development and multi-level evaluation of the quality of post-graduate studies and research. The board convenes once a month. Through the Advisory Board the Centre is informed about the state of post-graduate studies in the faculties. In this way the Centre for Research Education acts as a link between the post-graduate students and the faculties. As part of its operation, and planning and communication activities the Centre maintains an e-mail list for professors, supervisors of doctoral dissertations, and post-graduate students.

The Centre for Research Education seeks to become networked with the other Finnish universities with regard to post-graduate studies. In addition, the Centre is active in creating contacts with foreign universities to expand the scope of the research projects outside the national borders. Such contacts have been established for example with the University  of Umeå in Sweden .

c) Creating a profile for the Centre for Research Education

As its name implies, the Centre for Research Education has become mainly involved in research education, and in the promotion and development of research and such practices that ensure high quality research. The Centre for Research Education holds a position at the University  of Lapland which enables it to meet both the general needs of the whole university and the individual needs of the faculties. The current concept of post-graduate education provides a special advantage in that it assists the faculties to obtain their goals for the production of doctoral degrees. It also efficiently coordinates the resources directed at researcher education in the University and serves the function of quality assurance by providing training and creating appropriate practices. In addition, the Centre for Research Education has a major role as the drafter of the university research policy. Even though the faculties bear the main responsibility for their post-graduate students, the quality of research education and of post-graduate students becomes an issue relevant to the whole university through the university’s common research education centre. One of the leading ideas related to this model of research education has been the creation strategically important practices common to the whole university

d) The future prospect of research education: Quantitative and qualitative needs, and financing

The instruction provided by the Centre is largely given on a part-time basis but it is based on systematic planning work. The staff of the Centre consists of a full time administrative assistant and science secretary. A professor in research methodology acts as a director of the Centre but the majority of the professor’s teaching load is directed at master’s degree level studies. About one quarter of the science secretary’s working time is geared to research education. The Centre has been allocated 30 000€ for non-tenured teaching. For the training of professional researchers the Centre has received 30 000€ of project money for the years 2004-2006.

The resources available for the Centre for Research Education also include the Advisory Board and the post-graduate students’ actively used mailing list. A further important resource lies in the good relations between the members of the university staff. The methodology studies organized by the Department of Research Methodology are partly planned side by side with the studies provided by then Centre for Research Education. The courses of the Department of Research Methodology broaden the curriculum and simultaneously act as a means of recruiting promising post-graduate students for researcher training. 

Until recently the Centre for Research Education has been busy getting its operational idea established and looking for new forms of researcher education. It has also completed work on an extensive curriculum. Its future challenges include the internationalization of researcher education and the planning and implementation of researcher education courses to be run in English. The internationalization of researcher education means both cooperation between cross-border universities and an educational provision that would incorporate international courses of research education in the curriculum. The Centre for Research Education has so far supported the internationalization of post-graduate students by disseminating information about various options, by activating the students and by collecting information about opportunities for international cooperation in the field of research education. The staff of the Centre for Research Education are currently being trained to become specialists in international post-graduate exchange. The Fulbright Centre has been and will continue to be one partner for the Centre in international cooperation.

So far, the operation of the Centre for Research Education has been both planned and implemented on a small budget and with few staff members but it is clear that more resources  will be needed for its further development. The management of the Centre will take more time in the future and for the internationalization of the teaching of the methodology studies, for example, a provisional professorship will be needed.

e) Recruiting students for research education, the application procedure and acceptance of students

The Centre for Research Education is an open and flexible organization whose educational events and courses can be freely attended by any post-graduate student and researcher at the University  of Lapland . Only the applicants for the training program for professional researchers were invited through a special call for participants from among those accepted by the faculties as post-graduate students. The applicants were required to submit a motivation paper, i.e. a short account of the applicant’s reasons for wanting to join the project and what s/he expects of it. In addition, a personal study plan was required, which reported on the stage of the applicant’s ongoing research and contained a financing and action plan for the applicant’s ongoing research and a plan for a future career as a researcher. Besides a schedule for the progress of the research work, the applicants were also asked to submit a financing application plan, plans relating to the internationalization of research practices, and information on the applicant’s international contacts. The applicants were also asked to produce references, a research plan and a free-form CV. The director and the science secretary of the Centre made a proposal of those to be admitted to the program and the final acceptance was given by the Advisory Board.

The recruiting of students for the courses of the Centre for Research Education is geared to the faculties’ recruiting of post-graduate students. Then students join the courses of the Centre for Research Education on their own initiative based on the information disseminated to the post-graduate students by the Centre. One problem in the program seems to be that some of the courses require strong commitment from the students and a wide range of entry-level knowledge. This means that the students who have joined the course at a too early stage do not benefit from it and may drop out. Thus a clear area for development lies in the guidance to be given to the students so that they will be able to join the courses relevant for their own doctoral studies. Moreover, an attitude of greater commitment needs be created among the students. The above two things require better cooperation between the supervisors, faculties and departments.

f) Organization of education, teaching and supervision

The goal in the organization of the educational provision is to achieve relevant combinations of expertise and as much flexibility as possible. The Centre for Research Education has been established    as an organization that provides multidisciplinary research education and training in some general research skills. Its provision cannot be substituted for the supervision of doctoral studies that the post-graduate students receive from the faculties nor for the faculty research seminars. Instead, the Centre for Research Education systematically provides the students with an additional benefit that could not be provided by any department or faculty alone. Moreover, it brings together researchers of the same topic areas.

The curriculum is drafted by the director and administrative assistant of the Centre after they have heard the post-graduate students’ and supervisors’ opinions. The Advisory Board then comments on the plan and continues processing the ideas. The curriculum is finally accepted by Teaching and Research Board which is an administrative body set up for the development of teaching and research practices. Individual teachers, the director of the Centre, and experts in the respective content areas carry the responsibility for the contents of the various courses. During the last few years the curriculum work has been informed by inquiries made to the postgraduate students to map their situation. The practicalities of the curriculum work are taken care of by the administrative assistant.

The Centre for Research Education does not provide dissertation supervision; this remains the responsibility of the department or faculty.   Yet, some of the courses are structured in such a way that the researcher receives insightful and continuous feedback on a particular stage of his/her work in process.

Until recently, the planning and organization of the educational provision has taken place in a swift and flexible way based on a clear division of responsibilities. The process is, however, vulnerable because it is largely based on the activity of a few people and trust on their insight into the needs of researchers and research groups. Besides the staff of the Centre for Research Education, the supervisors and faculties should be more closely involved in the planning of the educational provision .That would enable a more strategic approach to the planning work and a focus on new developing areas of research. Moreover, the division of responsibilities between the faculties and the Centre for Research Education needs to be clarified and agreed upon. Currently, the Centre operates too independently and it has developed its curriculum so fast that not all supervisors are aware of all facilities provided by the Centre.   

g) National and international cooperation

The approach adopted by the Centre for Research Education at the University  of Lapland has been an innovative response to some problems of research education which arose from the small size of the university. The Centre for Research Education is also a part of the strategy a strong teaching university uses to become a strong research university. Therefore, it has been natural for the Centre to start its operation with a focus on research education across the faculty borders. It is, however, of great importance for the Centre to strengthen its cooperation with the faculties and dissertation supervisors.   

The Centre has organized several researcher meetings and instructional occasions on particular themes with visiting researchers acting as leaders and English as the official language. In this way the researchers get used to the practice of introducing and discussing their research work in English. The planning of an internationalization program for the post-graduate students is currently under way and new ways of sending researchers abroad are being tested. Cooperation with the Fulbright Centre has been started and the Centre has applied for a visiting researcher.

It is clear that national and international cooperation constitute a distinct area for future development. Only now has the Centre for Research Education reached a stage at which the rewards of national and international cooperation become realizable. The implementation of such cooperation requires, however, strong support from the faculties and departments. In the first stage, shared courses for the post-graduate students of the northern universities will be tested. The Centre for Research Education and the Faculty of Law at the University  of Lapland together with the University of Umeå , are going to implement   a research course that combines the research traditions of law with those of social sciences. Also other opportunities for research educational cooperation in the neighbouring areas with a focus on the northern perspective will be investigated. In this connection it is good to remember that from the perspective of the University of Lapland the whole of the huge arctic area constitutes a ‘neighbouring’ area. Therefore another university with which research educational cooperation is under way is the University of Fairbanks in Alaska . Cooperation with the nearest university, the University of Oulu , would seem to be a valuable goal, but has not yet been fully realized. Only a few individual researchers from Oulu have attended the courses of the Centre for Research Education.

The strength of the Centre for Research Education at the University  of Lapland arises from its operational idea, which also affects the choice of pedagogical approaches, and from its strong methodological expertise. In this sense the concept is interesting, not only nationally but also internationally. The question of cooperation has, however, not yet been solved. How cooperation can be developed and organized, and who are going to be the partners is still an open question.  

h) The relationship between education and working life

The core of the operational idea of the Centre is that research can be an occupation. The skills learnt during the doctoral studies and in the process of dissertational research and writing may no longer be sufficient because a professional researcher needs to know how to act as an expert consultant, how to negotiate and present oneself on professional and scientific occasions, how to draft contracts and applications, and how to deal with administrative processes such as project application and management. In this sense the researcher education provided by the Centre arises from the needs of working life even though the content relating to the skills is scientific and research-based knowledge.

i) Educational quality assessment, systems of feedback, and quality improvement

One of the tasks assigned to the Centre for Research Education is the designing of common practices for the university that will maintain the high quality of research education. A central role in this work is played by the Advisory Board that has issued ‘A Guide for good supervision of doctoral studies’, and ‘A Proposal for Personal Study Plans’, and outlined principles for the award of Rector’s grants and   researcher’s offices. At the moment, an evaluation of the dissertational processes of the faculties is under way.

The Centre for Research Education maintains the quality of its research education, among other things, by applying careful recruiting procedures. It maintains a wide network of teachers which is constantly supplemented. An essential criterion for the choice of a teacher is the teacher’s own successful research practice.

Feedback is collected for nearly all the courses provided by the Centre (with the exception of project hatcheries and researcher meetings). The post-graduate students themselves also give spontaneous feedback straight to the administrative assistant. Student attendance and the number of credits produced are monitored by the Centre. The Centre has also received systematic feedback on its operation through two separate inquiries that it has conducted. In the future, the Centre is going to collect written feedback on its operation and contents in a more active way. A follow-up system has been designed for most of the new practices (such as the criteria for the award of grants, and the guidelines for good supervision of doctoral studies) proposed by the Centre. An important role in the evaluation procedure is played by the Advisory Board, which assesses the curriculum from the perspectives of the various faculties and disciplines and gives direct feedback about its relevance.

The feedback system is an area that needs further development. There is no instrument, yet, to assess the total results of the Centre for Research Education from the point of view of the university and the faculties. Such an evaluation is, however, difficult due to the variety of the tasks assigned to the Centre and the fact that some major processes of development are still in progress within the unit. The current system of feedback provides an orientation for the planning of the curriculum and is largely based on the experiences of the post-graduate students.