Proportion of academics with PhDs is ‘low’ (UK)

By Jack Grove

Analysis of doctorates prompts concerns over adequacy of scholars’ training, reports Jack Grove. Questions have been raised about whether many scholars are “little or no better qualified than those they are teaching” following an analysis of the latest data on how many academics have a doctorate.

In the study, Malcolm Tight, professor in higher education at Lancaster University, found that just 45.7 per cent of academic staff appeared to possess a doctorate. Even when the 10 per cent of staff whose qualifications were unknown were excluded, this figure rose to only 50.7 per cent. Only 21.8 per cent of part-time academics had a doctorate, compared with 58.4 per cent of full-time staff, his analysis says. The report, based on data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 2010-11, found that 11.8 per cent of the 181,185 people defined as “academic professionals” had only an undergraduate degree as their highest qualification. Another 21.1 per cent of academics had a master’s or other higher degree as their highest qualification, while another 7.5 per cent held a postgraduate certificate or diploma. “Many academics are not, therefore, particularly well qualified,” concludes Professor Tight.

The report, titled  Academic Staff in UK Higher Education Institutions: Are They Fit for Purpose?, found huge variations in the level of qualifications held by staff at different universities. Sixty-seven of the UK’s 73 pre-1992 universities had at least 50 per cent of their full-time staff holding doctorates, compared with six post-92 institutions and four post-2000 institutions. Lower qualification levels could be attributable to many post-92 universities’ focus on vocational subjects, in which lecturers were more likely to be recruited mid-career from the professions (such as teaching, nursing and accountancy), notes Professor Tight. Institutions that only recently acquired university status might not be expected to have many staff with doctorates, he adds.

However, despite these extenuating factors, the “overall level of doctoral qualification within the British academic workforce does seem rather low”, even at some older universities, says Professor Tight. “It might even be said that many academics are little or no better qualified than those they are teaching,” he says in the study.
However, Stephanie Marshall, deputy chief executive (research and policy) at the Higher Education Academy, which promotes good teaching in universities, said that having a PhD was not essential to becoming an academic. “While it clearly demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of a specific area of study, a doctorate doesn’t necessarily indicate an academic’s ability to communicate that knowledge effectively to their students,” said Professor Marshall.

“Recognition against the stages within the UK Professional Standards Framework [a benchmarking scheme operated by the HEA], and the continuing professional development it brings, might be a better indicator of an academic’s teaching ability. “It helps to ensure that they keep up to date on current teaching practices and pedagogies that can have a significant and positive impact on the student learning experience.”

Professor Marshall said that “a PhD is usually a prerequisite for obtaining postdoctorate positions or academic posts in research-intensive institutions” – although Professor Tight’s study reveals that this is not always the case. Only 12 universities and three specialist institutions had 80 per cent or more of their staff with a PhD or equivalent, which was “somewhat surprising” as “research-focused universities would be expected to demand doctoral qualifications from candidates for academic employment”, he says.
The study adds that statistics show that nearly three-quarters of academics are employed to do some type of research, with 22.5 per cent of staff on research-only contracts and 52.3 per cent employed to do teaching and research. But despite this, only around half of staff have a doctorate, Professor Tight says. “It is somewhat surprising that more attention is not given to ensuring that academics’ training is adequate in their research function,” said Professor Tight.

Source: Times Higher Education