Mandatory PhD policies lead to boom in academics with doctorates

Latest Hesa data reveal big jump in staff with a doctorate, although numbers remain static at some institutions

March 8, 2018
Durham students
Source: Alamy

The increasing insistence by UK universities for new staff to have a doctorate has helped to drive up the number of academics holding a PhD by more than a third in just six years, new data show.

According to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, more than half (54 per cent) of all academic staff held a PhD in 2016-17, a rise of eight percentage points compared with 2010-11. Even if staff whose qualifications were unknown are excluded, the share is up from 51 to 57 per cent.

In absolute terms, some 28,000 more academics working in UK higher education hold a PhD compared with six years ago, an increase of 34 per cent.

Making a PhD – or studying for one – compulsory for new staff has been a growing trend for UK universities in recent years. This followed a 2012 study that raised concerns about the uptake of PhDs among academics, and questioned whether many scholars were little or no better qualified than the students who they were teaching.

The latest data show that a large number of universities, many of them post-92 institutions, have seen a significant increase in the share of staff with a PhD. At a dozen institutions, the proportion of those with a doctorate has risen more than 20 percentage points since 2010-11.

They include Kingston University, the University of Huddersfield and Anglia Ruskin University – all modern universities formed since 1992 – where the share went up by 32 percentage points or more.

However, at some other post-92s, the proportion with a doctorate has remained low. Excluding specialist institutions, there were seven universities where the share was below a quarter in 2016-17, including Southampton Solent University and the University of West London.

Malcolm Tight, professor of higher education at Lancaster University and author of the 2012 paper, said that the “steady increase” in the share of staff with a PhD was a “good thing”.

He suggested that many universities’ strategies were being driven by the fact that “if you want to get more postgraduate and doctoral students…then the arguments for having staff involved trained to at least doctoral level is fairly compelling”.

However, Professor Tight added that, while a PhD was important, “there are a number of caveats”. “There is a good argument in areas like arts or marketing or nursing that you need people with recent relevant professional knowledge to be involved in teaching,” he said.

Tim Thornton, deputy vice-chancellor at Huddersfield, where the proportion of staff with PhDs has jumped from 34 per cent to 67 per cent in six years, said that the figures reflected “a really systematic effort to enhance what we call the authenticity of our staff base”.

Students know that when “they come here they are going to meet experts in their field and it’s not just a matter of chance”, he added.

As well as insisting on new academics having a PhD or studying for one, Huddersfield also requires all teaching staff to have a relevant teaching qualification, and professional experience is also demanded where necessary.

Asked if there was any risk that the PhD could become devalued if most academics had them, Professor Thornton said that he would “rather ask the question why there are so many colleagues” in other universities without a PhD. 

“If you go back 30 years there was perhaps a situation where some people didn’t feel they needed them and you could be a leading figure in a particular field without a PhD but I genuinely don’t think that applies any more,” Professor Thornton said.

Interactive table of PhD numbers among academic staff

InstitutionAcademic staff with PhD in 2016-17% of staff with PhD in 2016-17% of staff with PhD in 2010-11Percentage point change 2010-11 to 2016-17
Source: Hesa. Note: Percentage calculations exclude staff whose highest qualification was unknown.

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Reader's comments (1)

Some of this increase can be attributed to some universities providing time and funding for their existing academics to pursue doctoral study. This appears to be a positive initiative, as long as the time balance with other workload expectations is appropriate. However, for those institutions which have simply made a doctorate a compulsory requirement for application, in terms of socio-economic disadvantage this piece neglects to address the enormous financial cost this places on entry to an academic career. The significant shortage of funding for doctoral study, coupled with intense competition for secure academic employment afterwards, makes pursuing that route intensely risky for those without a financial safety net. While other professions, such as law, which have been criticised for elitist approaches to recruitment and a disproportionate entry from those from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds, have been making efforts to address this by means of financial support and more thoughtful recruitment strategies, I see little equivalent effort in academia. Many decades ago solicitors used to charge recruits for the final ‘apprenticeship’ stage of training. Such an approach would be unthinkable today. For wannabe academics faced with self-funding a doctorate before they can even consider applying for lectureships, it is a retrograde approach which still prevails in academia. By all means applaud an increasingly qualified academic workforce, but only after progressive steps have been taken to provide a properly funded and reasonably secure path into an academic career which begins long before the completion (or near completion) of a doctorate.

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