Are we placing too much focus upon higher degrees for university lecturers?

There is growing pressure on university lecturers to achieve higher degrees. Fiona Cust and Jessica Runacres question if this is necessary for those teaching at undergraduate level, particularly in vocational or career-focused courses

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Staffordshire University
28 Apr 2023
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As academics, we are only too aware of the daily pressures that university staff face. Well-being, or the lack thereof, is now a sector-wide concern. The demands upon our limited time are stretched to breaking point by rising student numbers, staff reductions, marketisation, technological challenges and target-driven workloads. These factors are consistently linked with work-related stress, burnout and poor mental health and well-being. We are increasingly supporting colleagues and students with mental health issues, with little capacity to focus upon our own. A cycle that repeats itself as poor well-being negatively affects staff productivity, which in turn affects students, colleagues and the institution as a whole.

Yet the demands increase. One such demand that is now seen as a “target” within UK universities (and probably internationally) is the requirement for academic staff to achieve higher degrees. A higher degree is defined as a master’s degree or a doctorate. The question that we would like to pose is whether, for teaching staff, this is really necessary.

If you are teaching at undergraduate level, is a degree in a related subject, and experience within the sector that you are teaching, not more than adequate? Yet within our institutions we are increasingly pressured to achieve at least a master’s degree, and an emphasis is now being placed upon doctoral study too – our own institution has a target percentage of staff with higher degrees “to be achieved”. This is in addition to the mandatory requirement of a teaching qualification at postgraduate level.

The completion of a teaching qualification is undoubtedly going to improve a university lecturer’s skills by increasing their knowledge of strategies for teaching and assessment. However, does having a doctoral-level qualification, particularly in a non-teaching-related subject, make you a better educator when teaching undergraduate level? Are we simply increasing the pressure upon our very fragile workforce by insisting that a higher degree is a necessity?

Universities should embrace experience and insight above academic accolade. Experience is particularly relevant when we consider courses in higher education with a more practical focus such as computer science, those with a clear link to a specific profession such as nursing, or vocational courses such as business or journalism. Lecturers with practical experience in these areas will certainly provide better insights than lecturers with doctoral qualifications.

A standard target for the number of staff with doctoral qualifications across all disciplines in higher education is inappropriate because it does not consider the differences between subject areas and how these differences might affect the needs of students.

What would best improve the teaching lecturers are able to provide?

For staff in some fields, or for those involved in research, the increased knowledge and skills relating to research methods that can be gained from doctoral qualifications is relevant. However, for other staff, perhaps a specific field-related qualification would better support them in their teaching roles – for example the Advanced Clinical Practitioner (ACP) qualification for healthcare professionals.

Other steps that could better support lecturers to improve their teaching:

  • Peer observation by a more experienced academic would be beneficial – an individual who can observe their teaching and provide constructive feedback as to what works and what might be improved upon. The value of the sharing of ideas, teaching styles and resources should not be underestimated.
  • Regular debriefing sessions between teaching staff. If a particular teaching style or method has been well received by students, then this could be demonstrated and shared with colleagues to encourage wider adoption.
  • Seeking student feedback on all modules. Evaluations from students at the end of courses can be very helpful. They might be our best or worst critics, but their feedback is valuable and can assist in refining our teaching style and content.

We might be setting too many staff up to fail if we ask them not only to teach students, with all the stresses this brings, but also to request that their precious downtime be used for studying. Their time might be better used ensuring their teaching materials are up to date and, importantly, for much-needed recharging of batteries. This is likely to have a more positive impact on their teaching than achieving a higher degree.

To be clear, we are certainly not underestimating the value, or indeed credibility, that a higher degree can bring. We are simply suggesting that within universities each individual programme, and each individual academic, needs to be considered as a separate entity. The value of mental health and well-being, space for rest and recuperation and the recognition of practical experience must not be overlooked.

Fiona Cust is associate professor and Jessica Runacres is a senior lecturer in the School of Health, Science and Wellbeing at Staffordshire University.

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