Why I ...think higher education lecturers need a professional training

December 14, 2001

John Radford Emeritus professor of psychology University of East London

"Doctor, I think my little boy's broken his arm. Can you help?"

"Well, unfortunately, my clinical training consisted entirely of a detailed study of the left ear lobe. But I'll do my best, using my basic courses in anatomy and physiology."

The National Health Service has its problems, it has not, however, reached this stage. But what about higher education? The new general practitioner has, at least, largely to deal with the human body. The new academic will be called on, among other things, to teach in many different modes with quite different skills; examine; counsel students; undertake committee and other professional work; jump through interminable assessment hoops; prepare syllabuses; write course material; interview or otherwise assess applicants; keep up to date academically; do PR for their departments; and carry out and publish research. All this on the basis of an academic first degree and a PhD on an obscure topic in the corner of one discipline.

There are attempts to change things. Most universities now have some training courses for new staff, some of them compulsory. A group of ten universities is preparing a PhD to include teaching skills, group work, enterprise skills, language and research skills, as well as a PhD project. But the PhD remains primarily a research training, while higher education has changed from an elite to a mass system, with a participation rate due to rise to 50 per cent.

No mass system has ever been able to increase research concomitantly with teaching. Academics can, for the most part, no longer be researchers who teach. They must be general practitioners, whether or not they are prepared to be. Research will be concentrated in a few institutions (which seems the government preference, although it failed with the polytechnics) or in a few individuals. And a wider range of students needs a wider approach to courses, teaching, assessment and everything else.

The PhD is a fairly recent development. It originated in the early 19th century with Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of higher education as a seamless whole unified by "philosophy". The later rise to dominance of research has produced the present quite different specialised version. What is needed is not a further modification, but a radically new look at the functions of mass academics. There is no difficulty about finding the knowledge and skills required. Ample research shows the best ways of teaching and learning, and so too for all the other activities. There is a case for a doctorate of higher education, a professional training (with a research element) analogous to the professional doctorates in my own field of psychology, for example.

There are difficulties. First, inertia - effective change takes a long time in education. And most academics lack the time, and frankly the knowledge, to be able to stand back and rethink what they are doing. Second, the predominance of research (often narrowly defined) as the only, or main, index of prestige and sine qua non of promotion. And, of course, many graduates enter academia precisely because they wish to pursue their discipline. That is laudable, but other, additional images and ambitions are needed - those of the high-level disseminator/practitioner. The bulk of evidence shows little direct relation between research and teaching, certainly at first-degree level.

Third, one might mention the inspectorial models of quality assessment, which encourage a narrow correctness rather than the open-minded thinking that ought to characterise universities, mass as well as elite.

These are formidable obstacles, but unless they are tackled seriously, I fear descent into what has elsewhere been crudely called "bog-standard" education.

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