Leader: Teaching is not a lesser mission than research

December 14, 2007

The Government wants every secondary-school maths lesson to be taught by a teacher with a degree in maths. On the same principle, can a degree course be taught by teachers who have not practised the subject at a higher level than their students?

The fact that a quarter of academics are on teaching-only contracts opens up this debate. Many of them have PhDs. Does this mean, as the University and College Union's Stephen Court suggests, that they may be overqualified for this apparently less prestigious role?

The answer depends on what a university is for. While research is one of its key functions, teaching is another. And while a PhD is sometimes regarded as a kind of driving licence that proves its holder is able to perform original research, it has other uses, too. A PhD proves that a person has carried out an independent project that has produced new knowledge in a specific field. That establishes their credibility as a teacher as much as it proves their competence to perform research. Many private-sector firms recruit people with PhDs for jobs because they think it proves that they can perform original analytical thinking.

And in an increasing range of subjects people expect to be taught by someone with a doctorate. The proportion of staff with PhDs is often regarded as a measure of quality in university departments, especially in subjects that are seeking to up their academic clout. An example is business studies. Business schools track the percentage of their academic staff with PhDs, and it is one of the measures used by the Financial Times in its ranking of MBA courses. The future captains of industry who take these courses do not plan on doing original research, but they value the extra insights they get from people who have a strong research background.

In an era when people pay to go to university, this logic is likely to apply more widely. Students are getting fussier about their teachers. Understandably, their main concern is that they should know how to teach, and this is a focus of professional development throughout the sector. But students might also want to know that the person telling them about astrophysics or French literature has helped create our knowledge of the subject rather than merely reading other people's wisdom about it.

Rather than being a problem that risks creating an overqualified underclass, the emergence of high-grade teaching-only staff as a distinct group should be regarded as a positive development. For one thing, it marks a welcome increase in the openness of the claims universities make to their students. Many institutions have famous researchers who are pictured in the prospectus but who make only guest appearances in the lecture theatre. It would add to teaching quality and to transparency if it were made clear that students are likely to be taught by excellent teachers, not by semi-detached research stars.

It is noticeable that University College London, one of the country's most important research institutions, has one of the biggest complements of teaching-only staff. This suggests that it recognises that teaching and research are separate but equally valid missions. This mindset is certain to become more common.

In the longer term, the fact that student fees are a significant part of university cash flow, and that students can make their views known in satisfaction surveys and by other means, suggests that highly qualified and capable teaching staff are going to be an increasing asset, not second-class academic citizens. In the US, small teaching-only universities have almost as much prestige as big research universities, and charge similar fees. When will a British institution decide that this is a business model worth looking into?

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