Scholars, not experts

April 4, 2013

It is academics who will have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that students get a “higher” - not merely a “further” or a “secondary” - education in the new-style English higher education sector. Will the existing protections be strong enough to safeguard standards?

Among the requirements set by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for providers seeking degree-awarding powers is that they should be able to demonstrate that they have “a well-founded, cohesive and self- critical academic community that can demonstrate firm guardianship of its standards”.

Not long ago, it was fairly straightforward to show that such a community was present. In universities there would normally be a body of career academics, mostly required to do both teaching and research, in jobs that would last until retirement age and where they could hope to be promoted up the academic hierarchy. They were owners of their scholarly choices about the direction of their research and writing.

Academics were identifiable as experts in their specialist area of knowledge and because only their peers could challenge them, they enjoyed academic freedom; it fell to them to decide what to teach and how to do the teaching, for only they had the relevant expertise. They were professionally engaged in peer review of other scholars’ work and so had their fingers on the national and international comparability of standards.

The ending of academic tenure in 1988, subsequent further moves towards short- term contracts and “teaching-only” higher education providers have all shifted these expectations. And a redefinition of “scholarship”, which has gone largely unremarked, could be more important than it looks.

According to the Quality Assurance Agency’s most recent guidance, academic staff in providers with taught degree-awarding powers are required to have relevant “knowledge and understanding of current research and advanced scholarship in their discipline area”. Such an academic is an observer of the work of others, not a contributor to the advancement of knowledge. Academic staff may now in practice be delivering courses designed in detail by others.

The expansion of vocational courses and the multiplication of alternative (including for-profit) providers will exacerbate the trend away from the traditional expectation that the “scholar academic” will be an expert in his or her own right, not merely one who keeps up with the latest reading.

There are manifest dangers here to the reputation and international attractiveness of “UK HE”. It is disturbing to note that among all the other urgent preoccupations about the sustainability of the new-style sector, this seems to be an area where analysis of the consequences has barely begun.

G.R. Evans
Oxford

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