Those who can, get a PhD; those who can't, simply teach anyway

THE readers debate the thorny issue of minimum requirement for academics. Ciaran Jones listens in

August 27, 2009

The PhD is still seen by many as the key to an academic career - a minimum requirement without which entry to the profession should not be permitted.

Yet, in reality, there are large numbers of people working in higher education who do not possess a doctorate.

When a recent study raised concerns about the proportion of teaching staff falling into this camp, the issue sparked a prolonged online debate.

One reader, commenting on the Times Higher Education website, says that, after a decade as an academic, asking him to go back and do a PhD would be "like asking Antony Gormley to take a GCSE in art, or getting Patrick Moore to do AS-level astronomy".

Another, taking an opposing view, writes: "At university, you should be helped with your learning by people who are professionals ... The competence to do that should be demonstrated by a PhD."

The study that precipitated the debate, Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution, was presented at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Conference on Higher Education in Paris earlier this year.

Its author, Philip Altbach, director of the Centre for International Higher Education, Boston College, says that as many as half of all university teachers do not hold a PhD.

His report attributes this figure to the rapid expansion of tertiary education and the trend towards the privatisation of universities, and it suggests that this dearth of doctoral-level scholars has put the academic profession "under stress as never before".

Readers of Times Higher Education were split over the necessity of a PhD in academia.

One writes: "The PhD is used as a badge and is assumed by the wearer to give automatic power, authority and understanding over things they don't know anything about."

The commentator argues that PhD study is the preserve of the middle classes and that the financial costs of completing a course - along with the "loss of career progress" - are insurmountable for those from lower socio-economic groups.

But this argument is rebutted by other readers, with several arguing that PhDs are a labour of love, and that the personal circumstances of the student are not a major issue.

A number of readers insist that PhDs should be set as a minimum requirement for academics and senior managers within the university.

Caron Dann, a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia, writes: "If you must look at universities as 'businesses', then they are in the business of selling education and producing research; so it is only logical that the people who work in universities, in academia as well as 'management', have the highest degree the institution offers."

Others argue that PhDs are an essential requirement only for tutors in intensively "knowledge-based" courses, such as the hard sciences.

Jonathan Baldwin, another reader, writes: "I don't have a PhD and quite frankly, although I'd love one (for the business card and door plate, you understand), after ten years in higher education, it would be a backward step."

For more on the debate, see:


The following is a selection from more than 130 comments posted on our website in response to claims that "massification" is taking a toll on standards among academic staff:

- "Requiring a PhD to teach means that you are saying: 'I would prefer my kids to be taught by a below-standard wealthy person who can't teach than a high-ability, motivated communicator from a low-income background who can'."

- "Universities are always going to have to defend the PhD - it is a core product - but we do run the risk of having to over-inflate its importance. Requiring a PhD for so many jobs is damaging because it drastically limits who can be recruited to early career jobs - and that can be seen in the quality of university administration versus the private sector."

- "The overwhelming majority of teaching staff in UK/US higher education without a PhD are current PhD students, rather than lecturers who happen not to have a PhD."

- "If so-called higher qualifications are not important in respect of doing a job, what are universities actually selling? Is the whole exercise futile?"

- "Most PhD programmes across the world (as I understand it) now include teaching training as a core component (the UK lags behind this somewhat). Thus, the majority of PhDs are able to teach."

- "Students studying A levels will be taught by teachers with at least a first degree, ie, at least three years more subject expertise than the students they are teaching. I doubt that many parents would welcome teachers who themselves only had an A level in the subject. You don't seem to be able to apply this logic to higher education."

- "The article talks about the shift of the pendulum from academics to managers. But this is beneficial in a way, especially with respect to managers taking over educational roles as they share and inculcate a more practical experience of industry."

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