Leader: 'Perfect on paper' may lack spark

Universities need to hire the best people for the job, but demanding PhDs from all is not the way to do it

January 3, 2013

Hiring the right people is absolutely crucial in every line of work. But whatever the criteria and selection process, it is not until someone has been in post for a couple of months that one can be sure that the right choice was made.

Clearly, qualifications are a crucial part of the sifting process, but even so the candidate who is right on paper can prove a disaster in person, while someone with a less conventional CV may be a revelation.

This makes it risky to set a hard and fast rule on “must-haves”, although clearly it is essential in some cases (I like my heart surgeons to have medical degrees).

This week we report on the growing trend among universities - particularly those with ambitions to climb the league tables - to make PhDs a requirement for all academic posts.

Our investigation follows the publication of a paper by Malcolm Tight, professor in higher education at Lancaster University, that reports that just 45.7 per cent of academic staff at UK universities appear to possess doctorates.

The paper concludes that this seems “rather low”, adding: “It might even be said that many academics are little or no better qualified than those they are teaching.”

Raising the quality of staff can only be a good thing - indeed, students paying top whack will demand it, and some may well expect their lecturers to have postgraduate degrees.

There are other factors at play, too, not least the aforementioned league tables.

But such a standard can also be a blunt instrument when universities simply need the best person for the job.

At times, experience in the private sector might be of more value than a research qualification, and in disciplines such as business and law, universities may hand the initiative to more vocationally oriented private sector rivals if they demand PhDs from all.

One part-time lecturer with extensive industry experience contacted Times Higher Education after going for a permanent post at the university where he taught.

Having been encouraged to apply, he was then rejected because he lacked a PhD.

“I challenged the university’s capriciousness in talking to me about tenure then making it impossible, arguing that it wasn’t until I was in my late fifties that I’d got interested in teaching; that when I graduated people in my field didn’t usually take doctorates but could still gain tenure; and that my department had already shown by employing me that it thought well enough of my career and work in spite of my lack of a doctorate,” he wrote.

“The university replied, saying that PhDs are now the minimum entry requirement, even if they weren’t in the past; that if I’d really wanted to teach I should have got one; and that people half my age looked better on paper than I did, irrespective of how much accumulated experience I had.”

Taken at face value, such a black-and-white approach seems absurd.

Hiring policies that sift the best from the rest are what every employer needs, but universities must avoid a cloistered attitude and use “contextual data” to waive the PhD requirement when appropriate.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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