Leader: Universal lesson to be learned

In the high fees era, debates about teaching qualifications will be just as pointed in the lecture hall as in the classroom

November 1, 2012

Consecutive items on BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week offered an amusing reminder of the gulf that can exist between debates in secondary education and the issues that preoccupy academics.

The first was a discussion between a National Union of Teachers official and a frustrated parent about toughening up basic literacy and numeracy tests for trainee teachers. The second was a fascinating but bafflingly complex discussion between two professors about whether we live in a real world or a simulation in which only the individual exists.

Some may have concluded from the piece that academics live in a world of their own. But in reality (let's assume that such a thing does exist), debates about the qualifications required to teach are just as current in universities as in schools.

Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, has claimed that there is "broad general support for the principle that those who teach should be appropriately qualified", but warned that too often teaching courses are "not being taken seriously".

But alongside the sharpened focus on qualifications such as the postgraduate certificate in higher education, there has also been renewed interest in a more traditional academic rite of passage: the PhD.

A growing number of universities are making doctorates a requirement for recruits. This mirrors the approach in the US, where universities often advertise the proportion of staff with doctorates in a bid to win over prospective students. But if UK universities hope to do the same, many have work to do.

An analysis by Malcolm Tight, professor in higher education at Lancaster University, shows that only about half of UK academics have PhDs - even fewer by some measures.

Tight suggests various explanations for this, noting that in some disciplines - particularly those where academics are often practitioners - demanding doctorates would make little sense.

But even allowing for this, he says, "the overall level of doctoral qualification seems rather low. It may even be said that many academics are little or no better qualified than those they are teaching."

The focus on teaching qualifications in the high fee era is understandable, Tight concludes. "But it is still somewhat surprising that more attention is not given to ensuring that academics' training is also adequate in their research function."

In fact, it seems likely that in today's climate, a PhD is not just of value in the lab: many students will expect their lecturers to have a doctorate, with its guarantee of research experience, as part of the improved "service" they have been promised. After all, this for many will be the key difference between a "lecturer" and a "teacher".

At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect the growing army of part-time, teaching-only academics to have doctoral qualifications (Tight found that only 22 per cent of part-timers do), and the postgraduate funding crisis will exacerbate the problem.

Such issues are likely to perpetuate and even deepen the divide between research-intensives and other parts of the sector, but there is no ignoring the fact that the qualifications of those who teach matter at all levels of education.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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