A professional in the dock

May 16, 1997

Is the taught doctorate a 'dumbing down' of higher education or a model idea? Emma Westcott reports

The professional or taught doctorate is a little-known qualification which was first introduced in the United Kingdom five years ago by Bristol University, and was subsequently adopted by a handful of others. The PD could now be set to grow as the sector responds to market demands.

Does it show the belated and justified academic recognition for the intellectual demands of professional life? Or, as has been suggested, the "dumbing down" of the universities? After all, the second edition of the popular handbook for PhD students by Philips and Pugh dismisses the PD as "a considerable dilution in the concept of the doctorate".

Standards are at the core of the argument. The professional doctorate includes a taught element, as well as a dissertation of between 30,000 and 40,000 words.

Valerie Hall is the programme director for Bristol University's EdD, the first professional doctorate in Europe. The introduction of such an innovative programme at a fairly traditional, research-oriented institution represented a landmark in the acceptance of the professional doctorate in the UK, but placed a lot of pressure on the course team to establish the level of the work done as doctoral. Dr Hall recalls the thrill of pioneering an understanding of what a doctoral essay of 4,000 words might look like, and of what it might mean to teach, rather than supervise, at doctoral level.

She remains a passionate advocate of the professional doctorate but expresses some concerns about the developments of the past five years. A masters-level qualification is the entry requirement at Bristol but Dr Hall believes some institutions "nest" a masters qualification within the professional doctoral programme, diminishing the volume of doctoral work undertaken by students.

Bristol's EdD focuses on education management, but some professional doctorates have a much wider scope.

To date, the concept has found most support in education, business administration, engineering and psychology.

John McGinnety is pro vice chancellor at the University of East London, where generic PD regulations have been introduced. "Our regulations allow a professional doctorate to be taken in any suitable professional area, just as the PhD can be taken in any suitable academic area," he explains. The balance between taught work, professional practice and thesis vary. For the doctor of fine art, for example, an artefact or product can be the main outcome, but every PD programme must result in a thesis, even if this is only an account of the thinking behind the main product.

Kate Myers is a graduate of the Bristol EdD, and who coordinates the EdD programme at the Institute of Education, London University. She joined the Bristol programme while working as a local education authority inspector. "Any doctorate represents a huge time commitment to a full-time worker, but the professional doctorate allowed me to negotiate assignments which informed and complemented my work,'' she says.

Rowie Shaw, head of professional services at the National Association of Head Teachers, is a participant on Dr Myers's programme. She opted for a professional doctorate because she was attracted by the cumulative, incremental character of the EdD. "Experienced education practitioners can be prevented from exploring professionally-related issues in the depth they would like, because of the pace and the pressure of work," she says.

Paul O'Shea, head teacher at a North London comprehensive, agrees. "My decision to undertake the EdD had more to do with the process, than the outcome of a doctorate - I wanted to develop my ability to theorise my professional practice and experiences. The practitioner researcher concept is an appealing one."

The recent Harris review of postgraduate education mentions the taught doctorate briefly in relation to the need for greater coherence and simplicity with regard to the names of all postgraduate qualifications. Indeed some of the professional doctorate titles are rather bewildering to the uninitiated; the graduates of one PD programme at the University of East London are entitled to have DPsyPsy after their names (psychoanalytic psychotherapy). Nor, do the terms PhD or DPhil convey useful information about the traditional doctorate.

The professional doctorate is arguably a return to the status quo ante of British higher education, which provided professional study at the highest level in theology, medicine and law long before the notion of higher study as a worthwhile end in itself gained widespread recognition. It might also be said to persist in respect of subjects as diverse as medicine and music. The construction of academic/vocational, or theoretical/practical as opposites bedevils our education system at all levels. Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that all the sceptics are motivated by intellectual snobbery.

Some are understandably anxious about the increasing pressure on their institutions to justify everything they do with reference to market demand and employment-related outcomes. They may see the traditional PhD as the last bastion of pure academic enquiry, with the professional doctorate appearing to be a battering-ram for the forces of vocationalism.

Dr Myers points to the calibre of the PD students as the best safeguard against the dilution of the doctoral standard. "Even if our institutions allowed us to cut corners, our participants would not. They are strongly motivated senior practitioners, with high expectations, and high standards. They would not settle for a second-rate learning experience, and this makes them very rewarding to work with."

Emma Westcott is education policy researcher for the Association of University Teachers.

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