Regulatory and guidance frameworks for doctorates

Doctorates operate in an international context and it is therefore important that countries benchmark their doctoral degrees in a global environment. Some of the most important reasons for this are: to demonstrate parity of outcomes;to promote mobility; and to strengthen career opportunities for doctoral graduates. Key factors affecting the reputation of each country’s doctorates include having in place adequate and rigorous quality assurance mechanisms for doctoral programmes, and the ability to demonstrate consistency of standards of achievement across varied programmes. 

In most countries, doctoral candidates span both the core activities of higher education institutions: education and research. Candidates are learning about research while also doing research, and research degree programmes are firmly rooted in the research effort and output of universities, irrespective of the subject area, award title, mode of study or geographical location of the candidate. Much doctoral research has practical relevance in the candidate’s professional sphere, whether in an academic or other context. However, whilst this is true of all professional, practice-led and industrial doctorates, it cannot be said of all doctoral research, because not all doctoral candidates yet have started their professional practice.

Internationally, higher education staff contribute to one another’s work in doctoral education by attending conferences and acting as reviewers or examiners across continents. 

The doctorate in Europe

Since the original Bologna declaration in June 1999, UK doctoral awards have tended to be contextualised in the wider European frameworks, including the qualifications framework for the European Higher Education Area. Representatives of sector-wide organisations have participated in European and other international conferences as part of this benchmarking process. Following from this Europe has been able to contribute to the development of the doctorate worldwide while assuring that global changes are taken into account in each country’s policy-making and practice (see section 6.1 of the QAA 2011 ‘Doctoral degree characteristics’ guide Doctoral characteristics).

All forms of Doctorates in Europe are considered as in alignment with European-wide guidance meeting criteria of the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). This independent verification involving colleagues from European countries shows recognition of doctorate qualifications as having Europe-wide equivalence and standing which supports the mobility of graduates within Europe. This continues to increase through programmes such as the EU Erasmus Mundus initiative, and a growing number of universities offer joint or jointly-supervised doctoral programmes with European partner institutions. There is a need to ensure flexibility of entry qualifications to doctorates (EUA, 2006 proposals to revise the Salzburg principles). 

The European University’s Association’s Council for Doctoral Education 

The diversity of doctoral provision in the UK is seen by the EUA –CDE as an area in which the UK can play an important role by sharing experience and practice. 
The European Universities’ Association Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) ( raises awareness of developments in doctoral education and research training at European level through conferences, seminars and similar events. Their annual conference is attended by participants from many European countries.


The regulatory and guidance framework for UK doctorates is based on equivalent levels of academic achievement for all doctoral graduates. This approach is led by the Quality Assurance Agency, which, on behalf of the UK higher education sector, has stewardship of some of the key UK reference points for doctoral degrees. Two of the most important are:

  1. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) UK Quality Code Chapter B11: Research Degrees – this is a comprehensive document that sets out principles and guidance for the management and delivery of all research degrees, including professional and practice-based research doctorates. Chapter B11 of the UK Quality Code is at: and

    Another QAA publication, the ‘Doctoral degree characteristics’ guide, complements Chapter B11, setting out the main characteristics of doctoral degrees in the UK, acknowledging their diverse forms and demonstrating the ‘distinctive nature of the doctoral research degree as a qualification rooted in original research’ (QAA, 2011), irrespective of context. Doctoral Characteristics which summarises UK doctoral qualifications, highlighting similarities and differences. The guide is intended to provide a practical reference text that provides definitive information about UK doctoral programmes, including their structures, content and titles, their purposes and assessment methods. 

  2. The QAA Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications: the Framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 2008 (FHEQ), and the Framework for qualifications of higher education institutions in Scotland, 2001. Both Frameworks were originally published in 2001 but the FHEQ for England, Wales and Northern Ireland was updated and re-issued in 2008. Each Framework contains a doctoral qualification descriptor which summarises the expected academic and personal attributes of any doctoral graduate. The Frameworks for England, Wales and Northern Ireland can be found at:

    The FHEQ framework for Scotland was first published in 2001:

    The FHEQ framework for Scotland was made compatible with the Bologna Process in 2007:

    In the UK, national level doctoral regulations and guidance are designed to:

  • apply to the full range of doctoral programmes and qualifications;
  • provide flexibility to accommodate differences between different academic fields while encouraging consistent standards
  • be relevant to a diverse range of doctoral candidates from different backgrounds and with varied needs.

Other sector-wide bodies that influence standard-setting and guidance for doctoral education include the UK research councils (, the UK funding councils, professional, statutory and regulatory bodies, some of which fulfil the role of accrediting individuals in some professions and Vitae ( , funded by the research councils and responsible for promoting the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff in higher education institutions and research institutes.

UK doctoral regulations and guidance take account of similar reference points internationally. In particular, they relate to continental European frameworks, especially the ‘Dublin descriptors’ which are set out in the National Framework of Qualifications – Towards the European Higher Education Area Bologna Process ( Appendix: The Dublin Descriptors for each of the three cycles of the Bologna Process).

The Dublin descriptors were originally developed by the Joint Quality Initiative and now form part of the Framework for Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), the European equivalent of the UK Frameworks.

The UK has a Quality Code set by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and it is in the process of revising the original ‘Academic Infrastructure’ consisting of four main elements: the Code of Practice, Subject Benchmarks, Qualifications Frameworks and Programme Specifications. The new UK Quality Code combines these elements in a re-structured single reference point. As mentioned above, Chapter B11: Research degrees is one of the chapters of the new Quality Code and forms a section of Part B –Assuring and enhancing academic quality. Another Chapter in Part B that is a useful source of guidance for research degrees is Chapter B7 – External examining. Other parts of the Code that may be generally relevant to research degrees include Part A – Setting and maintaining threshold academic standards and Part C – Information about higher education provision.

North America

The first EdD programme was established at the University of Toronto in 1894 (Scott et al., 2004). Professional doctorates offered in North America, may be taken in parallel with full-time work and may take around two years of study.

In the USA a comprehensive and detailed review of research doctorates was undertaken in 1993 (report published in 1995) and again in 2006 (report published in 2010). The second review surveyed research doctorate programmes in six broad fields: agricultural sciences, biological and health sciences, physical sciences, engineering, social and behavioural science, and humanities. The review covered public and private universities; it found that 71 per cent of doctoral programs ranked in the study were in public universities. The 2010 report provides much detailed information about US research doctorates, such as programme rankings based on different performance indicators including:

  • research measurements such as numbers of publications, grants and awards
  • levels of student support (including funding)
  • career objectives
  • completion rates
  • diversity of both students and staff (faculty).

These two reviews in the USA equivalent of the various quality assurance measures to maintain standards of doctoral education; as stated in the 2010 report, they are intended to enable benchmarking of US doctoral programs and their characteristics. For further details about the review and how to obtain a copy of the report, see:


The Australian Qualifications Framework has recently been revised by a dedicated Council reporting directly to the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment. The AQF can be found at:
See the resources pages for useful references 

In association with the UK Council for Graduate Education and Middlesex University