It is unusual to find a football manager who has yet to kick a ball professionally or an orchestra conductor who has never played a note.
But a study of those overseeing the quality of teaching at UK universities has found that they seldom have an academic background in education – with many pro vice-chancellors for education even viewing this kind of expertise as unhelpful to their jobs.
According to the paper, titled “Does educational expertise matter for PVCs education? A UK study of PVCs’ educational background and skills”, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, less than one in five pro vice-chancellors for education lay claim to any expertise in education on their public profiles.
In addition, very few have claimed the UK’s top recognition for teaching – a National Teaching Fellowship, which, until recently, have been awarded by the Higher Education Academy. None of the 24 pro vice-chancellors for education in the Russell Group of research-intensive universities held one, while just three out of 34 in the same role at other post-92 universities surveyed held the award, says the paper by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, an associate professor at the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education, and Gustave Kenedi, who is now a researcher at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“If you did the same study for pro vice-chancellors for research, you would find almost everyone would have [been] successful in attracting research grants or running large research centres, but the same isn’t true for education PVCs,” Dr Mountford-Zimdars told Times Higher Education. “What we’re seeing is people moving their way up to the head of their departments and the PVC education role is simply the next step on the career ladder.”
That relative lack of expertise in education among pro vice-chancellors may suggest that universities are not attaching the same esteem to teaching as research, said Dr Mountford-Zimdars.
“It might also reflect the fact that educationalists focus on primary or secondary education and do not see much of a career path in university education,” she added.
The study also included interviews with eight UK pro vice-chancellors for education and 16 heads of university education departments on why so few pro vice-chancellors had an education background, concluding that “generic leadership skills, usually acquired as heads of departments, prepare incumbents for their role”.
For example, one pro vice-chancellor at a post-92 university explained that education was just part of a wider brief that included “widening participation, admissions, teaching, learning…a big review of the exam process…a big review of student workload, linked to…health and well-being...and internationalisation”.
As such, only two of the 24 interviewees thought that actual expertise in education would enhance performance in the role, while “there was agreement among PVCs [of] education that formal [leadership] training had limited uses”.
One director of learning at a Russell Group university said that the “complicated” pro vice-chancellor role was more about “politics and being tough, actually, and not everybody can do that”, adding that “a lot of [education experts] wouldn’t make good managers”.