Standards fall as global growth outstrips postgrad opportunities

Expert points to lecturers’ low qualification levels

December 19, 2013

The average lecturer around the world has only a bachelor’s degree because postgraduate study has not kept up with global growth in undergraduate enrolment, according to a leading higher education expert.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, also warned that low pay meant that academia was an unattractive profession to highly qualified people globally.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, held in Newport, South Wales on 11 December, he said that the dramatic growth in higher education worldwide had caused a “lowering of quality” in most countries.

“My guess…is that the average person who is standing before a class in a post-secondary institution around the world today has the average qualification of a bachelor’s degree only. Pretty shocking, but I think true,” Professor Altbach said.

“The number…with doctorates is quite modest, and the number…even with master’s degrees…is under half,” he continued.

Asked why lecturers were not better qualified, Professor Altbach explained that while there had been huge growth in enrolment, it had not been matched by an expansion in postgraduate opportunities.

“There just aren’t enough well qualified faculty members to do the teaching,” he said.

Another problem was that “the academic profession is not attractive”, partly because of its poor salaries, Professor Altbach argued.

And in countries where academics were poorly qualified, anyone with significant postgraduate experience would leave for nations offering better salaries and working conditions, he said.

Low morale and teaching jargon

Delegates later heard a presentation, “Pedagogic Stratification in UK Higher Education”, authored by Penny Jane Burke, professor of education at the University of Roehampton, Jacqueline Stevenson, head of the Centre for Social and Educational Research at Leeds Metropolitan University, and Pauline Whelan, also from the centre. It argued that some UK academics, who felt under relentless pressure to demonstrate “teaching excellence” through awards, student satisfaction ratings and other rankings, were close to “giving up”.

The research found that despite repeated claims of “teaching excellence” on institutions’ websites, there was little elaboration of what this meant in practice.

When senior managers were asked to explain “teaching excellence”, they used terms such as “holistic view of learning”, “passion” or “student-centred teaching”, according to Professor Burke.

But the meaning behind these terms was also unclear, she added.

“They were…like buzzwords” that “really didn’t engage in any way with the kind of struggles, emotional work [and] intellectual work…involved with learning and teaching”.

Academics polled in the course of the research had “an awful sense of frustration” at “marketisation…managerialism and instrumentalism” and the need for “excellence” in awards and ratings, Dr Stevenson said. Some had tried to “push back” against “utilitarian” notions of teaching, she added, but there was “almost a giving-up” among a number of academics.

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