Time to end the secrecy of PhD exams

In Europe, doctorates are examined in public and in Finland they're full-dress affairs - so why does Britain do it behind closed doors? Susan Bassnett pleads for openness
Click to follow

Last month I was in Finland, examining a PhD thesis. It was a grand affair, with black tie and academic robes, not to mention the official dinner at which we sang traditional drinking songs. In Finland, the examiner is called the Opponent and the Faculty Dean takes on the role of Custos, which these days means chairman, but once involved frisking all parties to ensure that nobody lunged at anyone with a deadly weapon. They take examinations seriously in Scandinavia.

As in most other European countries with doctoral traditions, the Finnish examination is public. The candidate stands to defend the thesis before an audience of family, friends and interested parties, and when the Opponent has asked the final question, the Custos invites comments from the audience. I have yet to hear anyone ask a question, but the option is there.

What a contrast with Britain. In the United Kingdom, a PhD candidate is examined by an external and internal examiner in a small room. The proceedings are totally confidential and the report on the examination normally goes to the university authorities only. No extraneous people are involved, there are no witnesses to the proceedings and the candidate is alone with the examiners for however long it takes. Some universities have an independent Chair, a few allow the supervisor to be present, though silently, but the sense of something secretive and inaccessible remains. After the event, any celebration is entirely up to the individuals concerned. In my department at Warwick, we make a point of having champagne and we stick a brightly coloured congratulatory notice on the board. This serves as a morale booster to the rest of the student body.

The British PhD viva is a scary event, because the student comes face to face for the first time with two independent examiners. In other countries, the examiners will have already read and submitted written opinions on the thesis, and in Finland the examiners approve the thesis for publication by the university before it can be officially submitted. This means that although the public examination is frightening, it is more a rite of passage than a pass/fail situation, though failure is always possible.

Which system is preferable, the public event or the closed examination? It is worth adding that there are variations on the public examination: in some countries a panel of examiners is drawn from inside and outside the institution; others are semi-public with fewer ritual formalities. On balance, I believe the public system is infinitely better, and I regard the closed door doctoral viva as a last bastion of opacity and élitism. For the student in such a situation is entirely alone, and the system is open to abuse.

Over the years I have encountered all kinds of horror stories: examiners who had not read the thesis, prejudiced examiners, rude examiners, laissez faire examiners; though I have also encountered far more erudite, pleasant and humane examiners. The point is that, because of the secrecy, it is difficult to prepare students for the event, and if there is a serious disagreement resulting in a referral or a fail, it is the student's word against the examiners. Significantly, in our more litigious society, the number of appeals by thwarted PhD students is rising. I have often noted that the closed examination is so stressful for some students that they have only the haziest recollection of what happened and some have a false impression of what the examiners actually said.

I would like to see British universities adopt a more public form of examining doctorates. This would be more transparent and fairer to the student, and would raise the profile of doctoral study by demystifying it. Students would be less stressed, they would have the pleasure of exhibiting the fruits of their research and, in the event of disagreement, would have witnesses.

Clearly the elaborate ritual of Finland would be unsuitable in the UK, where there are far more students pursuing doctoral research, but a version of the public forum should be encouraged. My guess is that introducing a more public system would reduce the number of costly, time-consuming appeals and even encourage other students to consider PhDs. It is extraordinary that, despite all the university reforms, this unsatisfactory procedure remains unchallenged.

The writer is Pro Vice-Chancellor at Warwick University