Doctoral-level thinking: non-PhDs need not apply

Third of sector expects staff to hold qualification, FoI request shows. Elizabeth Gibney reports

January 3, 2013

Source: Alamy

Uniform requirement: in about a third of UK institutions, new academic staff must hold a PhD or equivalent at the minimum

UK universities are increasingly pushing for academic staff to hold PhDs, an investigation has revealed.

Almost 30 per cent of the 113 universities that responded to a Freedom of Information request by Times Higher Education say they have aims or commitments to increase their proportion of academics with doctorates, whether by hiring new staff or by providing training for existing employees.

Of those, a dozen have specific targets. Cardiff Metropolitan University aims to raise its level to 50 per cent of academic staff by 2017-18, Anglia Ruskin University has a target of 60 per cent by 2014-15 and City University London is aiming for 68 per cent by 2016-17.

The percentage of staff with PhDs at UK universities has already risen significantly over the past decade, the data show.

In institutions where records are comparable, levels have increased by an average of more than 10 percentage points since 2002 or the earliest year since then for which data are available.

Across all responding institutions, the average current figure for academic staff holding PhDs is 51.6 per cent.

The responses also show that in a third of institutions, holding a PhD or the equivalent - or completing one within a given time frame - is the usual minimum requirement for all new academic staff.

In close to a third this is the case for only some academic employees (either at the more senior level or in specific disciplines).

In the remainder, some have no policy while others have requirements that are set below PhD level or are decided on a case-by-case basis.

Most universities also point out that requirements can be waived if, for instance, academics have other relevant professional qualifications or significant experience. Many also say they provide the opportunity for such staff to gain PhDs once in post.

Mark of the knowledge economy

Stephanie Marshall, deputy chief executive (research and policy) at the Higher Education Academy, said the increase in staff holding doctorates was attributable in part to the increasing prevalence of professional PhDs, for example in health, social care and education.

But institutional efforts to increase staff qualification levels were also about trying to create a learning environment that better promoted critical thinking and fostered new knowledge, she said.

“We’re in a knowledge economy and [it is] about being able to demonstrate that the most capable staff are on the books to give the best possible experience to students,” Professor Marshall added.

But such capabilities could equally come from expertise gained outside the research degree track, she said.

“I would argue it is about what’s fit for purpose. Different discipline areas will require different skill sets to deliver the best outcomes for students.”

New universities are just as likely as those in the Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions to require academic staff to have PhDs or the equivalent relevant experience.

Institutions where new staff are generally expected to have reached this level include York St John University, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Bedfordshire.

Of the 37 institutions that answered the question of whether minimum requirements for new academic staff have changed in the past 10 years, more than 60 per cent said they have.

Some of the sharpest rises in the proportion of staff with doctorates have occurred at the institutions with formal targets in this area. At City, the figure has risen from 39.5 per cent 10 years ago to 54.6 per cent in 2012-13, while Anglia Ruskin’s levels have increased from 21 per cent in 2004-05 to 43 per cent last year.

The universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol are among those that have no formal policy on minimum requirements.

Oxford says that “the focus of selection criteria would be to recruit the highest-calibre candidate for each role, with a view to the demands of that role; this may or may not include a PhD depending on the discipline and the nature of the role itself”.

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