Lecturers with PhDs 'overqualified' for job

December 14, 2007

New entrants' research expertise could be redundant as they are pushed into teaching-only posts. John Gill reports.

The PhD - seen as a foundation for an academic career - is becoming redundant for many lecturers as they are increasingly sidelined into teaching-only roles.

The claim is made in a research paper presented to the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference this week, which links the increased selectivity of the research assessment exercise with a rise in the number of teaching-only contracts.

It warns that the RAE has put pressure on academics to publish the "right sort of papers in the right sort of journals" or to risk being "consigned to the waste-land of the research-inactive".

The paper by Stephen Court, senior research officer at the University and College Union, warns: "There is a danger that entrants into the profession will be over-qualified if staff with PhDs end up in a post that does not require research."

He explains: "Academics may have started their careers conventionally, investing three or more years in a PhD, and if they find themselves in a teaching-only role that would be quite damaging."

The paper highlights rapid growth in the number of teaching-only posts, up from 12,000 to 40,000 in a decade. They now account for a quarter of all academic staff positions.

The biggest teaching-only employers are found across the sector, including the research-intensive University College London, the University of East Anglia and post-92 institutions with less research activity.

Mr Court adds: "It is a part of the academic culture of the past 50 or 100 years that teaching goes hand in hand with research, and to be removed from that position must be very painful."

The paper says the proportion of academics classified as doing teaching and research that were counted as research-active for the purposes of the RAE fell from about 66 per cent in 1995-96 to 58 per cent in 2001-02, and appears to be in further decline as 2008 RAE entries were finalised last month. It says: "Often, if universities do not feel that an academic's research is up to RAE standard, those considered not research-active will be put on a teaching-only contract."

Lisa Lucas, senior lecturer in education at Bristol University, said the days when a masters was enough preparation for a career in academia were "long gone".

She said: "Just because someone is not submitted to the RAE and is therefore deemed research-inactive doesn't mean they are not doing research that has a bearing on their teaching."

Arwen Raddon, a lecturer at Leicester University's Centre for Labour Market Studies, said the PhD was now a prerequisite for many academic posts regardless of the role.

She argued that the view of teaching as the poor relation of research was a modern one. "The PhD was traditionally seen as an entry qualification that gave you a permit to teach," she said.

"It is only more recently that the emphasis in the academic role has shifted towards research and away from teaching. Retired academics I spoke to were actually discouraged from doing research in their early days and urged to focus on teaching because they were told this was what higher education was really about."

Dr Raddon said that some postgraduates, far from seeing teaching as a backwater, were put off by the pressure to publish early in their career. "One told me they were considering going into further education, where they would be able to teach but without the pressures of the RAE," she said.

"Similarly, among early-career academics, having the emphasis taken away from teaching is not a positive experience, as this is one area they enjoy and where they feel they can 'make a difference'.

"So if those in teaching-only posts feel they are overqualified, perhaps this is more a reflection of the way in which teaching now seems to be less valued in the higher education environment where the pressure to publish is everything."

William Locke, assistant director of the Open University's Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, also saw value in teachers having research training - with benefits for students and their careers.

He said: "High levels of scholarship are required to teach in higher education, and a PhD is one means of training for this.

"Young academics may also move on to posts that require research expertise later in their careers. Or the policy of selectivity or higher education institutions' strategies for the next RAE may change, requiring research alongside teaching responsibilities."

Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the University of London's Institute of Education, said he could understand the frustration of those in teaching-only posts who saw themselves as potential researchers but questioned how many fell into that category.

He said a teaching-only role did not preclude scholarship, which he argued was still possible even when contracts fail to encourage it.

"Many worthwhile publications are not dependent on primary empirical research: it just needs good libraries and thinking time," he said. "If teaching-only contracts allow time in the library then they allow implicitly for thinking and writing.

"So an individual could develop a writing profile even though their contract did not include an obligation of that kind.

"Einstein wrote several of his papers while working in a patent office, and wasn't Trollope a Post Office clerk?"


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