Quality assuring the professional doctorate. Challenging traditional precepts through the supervisors’/advisers’ lens

Publication Date01 Jul 2019
AuthorAbdulai Abukari,Solomon David
SubjectEducation,Educational evaluation/assessment
Quality assuring the
professional doctorate
Challenging traditional precepts through the
Abdulai Abukari and Solomon David
Department of Education, British University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Purpose This paper aims to critically examine the quality of professional doctorates (PDs) from the
perspective of programme supervisors in terms of how quality assurance provisions have to meet their
Design/methodology/approach The study employed an interpretative approach, using semi-
structured intervi ews and online semi-str uctured questionnai re to generate data from 25 p rogramme
supervisors across universities in the UK. Data analysis and interpretation were carried out using the
interactive data analysis approach (Miles and Huberman, 1994), the bottomupapproach to data
analysis (Creswell , 2012) and the interpret ative strategy recomm ended by Mason (2002) . Four themes
emerged from the data that encapsulated programme advisorsperspectives: characteristics of
supervisors; oppor tunities in institu tional quality assu rance provision; cha llenges in quality as surance
process for PDs; and supervisorsviews on how quality assurance in PD can be enhanced.
Findings Quality assurance provisions have not adequately provided for the unique characteristics of
PDs owing to a number of issues including lack of clarity on the philosophy and focus of PDs and
conicting perspectives among PD supervisors re lating to what should ideally constitute a quality
assurance process for PDs. This paper argues that to develop a relevant and robust quality assurance
provision for PDs, it wo uld be essential to ensur e that the PD fundamenta l philosophy and focus ar e
coherently explained. In addition, it is crucial to ensure that quality assurance provisions cover not only
the academic rigor of higher level learning but also the value and potential impact of outcomes on practice
and the professions. The paper also highlights a list of useful suggestions from supervisors on how to
enhance quality assurance.
Research limitations/implications The research identies a number of issues confronting quality
assurance in PDs and the need for academics and policymakers to work together to deal with these to
would be difcult and unsustainable to generalise. Hence, further research using large sample sizes of
supervisors and other stakeholders based on whole programmes would be useful to achieve a sustained
understanding of how quality assurance provisions of PDs have to meet expectations of the professions
and professional contexts.
Practical implications To get the practical value and benets of PDs, all stakeholders (academics,
policymakers and professionals)would need to work together to ensure that appropriate quality assurance
processesare developed to reect the unique nature of the programmes.
Originality/value The paper provides a critical perspective to the currentdebate on quality assuring
PDs from the perspective of PD supervisors who have generallybeen left out. It highlights issues related to
quality assuring PDs, the misalignment between quality assurance provisions and the philosophy and
expectations of PDs, and suggests ways through which these can be appropriately addressed to enhance
quality assurance in PDs. The main contribution from this research is that it brings to the fore what
supervisors, who are a part of the major players in the PD process, think aboutthe current state of quality
assuranceand what can be done to make it more effective.
Keywords Quality assurance, Supervisors, Professional doctorte, Research degree
Paper type Research paper
Received16 August 2017
Revised20 June 2018
6 September2018
15February 2019
5 April2019
24April 2019
Accepted3 May 2019
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.27 No. 3, 2019
pp. 304-319
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-08-2017-0052
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
1. Introduction
Quality assurance (QA)has remained an issue and an important element in higher education
(HE) practice since the 1990s (Altbach et al., 2009;Clarke and Lunt, 2014;Jager and Frick,
2016). QA still attracts the mostscrutiny and monitoring by major stakeholders and interest
groups in the industry (Martin,2018). According to Cao and Li (2014, p. 65), higher education
is required to provide relevant services and to operate according to certain laid down
regulations like other industries. A report by the European Association for Quality
Assurance in Higher Education also stresses on the importance of quality in HE when it
states: concern forquality of education is a decisive parameter forcredibility, scientic and/
or professional valuefor postgraduate education (Costes and Stalter, 2010, p. 7). Similarly,
the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in the UK considersmaintaining high quality across
all aspects of HE as essential to ensure that it continually reectsthe needs of society (QAA,
2017). QAA argues that HE must reect the needsof the economy and maintain appropriate
quality to have the condence of students and the public. Thereis a general agreement that
it is crucial for HE to reect expectations of its stakeholders (Danielsen, 2017;Niedermeier
and Pohlenz, 2016;UniversityAlliance, 2014;Srikanthan and Dalrymple, 2002).
In addition to the general concern about quality in many HE systems, diversity in
perspectives owingto differences in expectations among major stakeholdersalso constitutes
a challenge in quality assurance. Professional Doctorate (PD), which is currently being
offered in many universities in the UK and other countries, comes up strongly as an
interesting case in point. In the UK, the surge in the professional-oriented doctorate
programmes has brought about a renewed debate about the purpose of higher education
(Brown and Cooke, 2010;Blackman, 2016;Robinson, 2018). The surge has also turned the
attention to questions such as what quality dimension should guide PDs and how this
should be determined (Taylor, 2008;Attwood, 2008;Gill, 2009;Brabazon and Dagli, 2010;
Danielsen, 2017;Lunt, 2018). In the UK, the denition and scope of research and research
impact clearly acknowledge and encapsulate the purpose and focus of the professional
doctorates as credibleresearch (QAA,2017, 2015;Costley, 2013;HEFCE, 2012).However, the
main issue in the UK context is that the quality assurance provision has not provided
enough scope to capture its dynamics and complexity. Many higher education institutions
quality assurance processes are unable to appropriately reect the expectation of the
professions or external stakeholders (Lunt, 2018). According to Brown and Cooke (2010),a
UK Universitiesreport shows that although the PD is included in the qualication
framework of the QAA, there are still issues in providing clarity about the denition and
nature of the award. Confusion in the clarity of purpose and focus of PD has also been
highlighted by Robinson(2018). Similarly, the British quality assurance audit (The Research
Excellence Framework; [REF]), which is conducted every ve years, denes research as a
process of investigation that includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce,
industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors(HEFCE,2012, p. 48). It refers to impact as
an effect on, change or benet to the economy, society, cultureandother aspects of public
policy and practice beyond the academia (ibid.). However, the guidelines for quality
assurance are too open-ended that higher education institutions apply them mainly using
the framework and expectations of the traditional PhD programmes in many respects. The
PD is sometimes compared unfavourably with the traditional PhD process in the UK
(Attwood, 2008;Gill, 2009;Maxwell, 2011;Blackman, 2016). Consequently, some PD
programmes are modied to reect the traditional guidelines, which in some cases are
inappropriate for PD. In an article that evaluates the status and knowledge contribution of
the professional doctorates, Costley (2013, p. 7) posits that most higher education
institutions that award the PDs have aligned their practices to regulations, systems and

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