We need a statutory qualification for practitioners in higher education

Some research presentations by practitioners are more akin to sales pitches than free enquiry, says Ian Pace

December 22, 2022
 A young musician relaxes in the shade of his instrument to illustrate We need a s tatutory qualificatio n for  practitione rs in higher educ ation
Source: Getty (edited)

It is not always necessary that an academic possess a PhD. In earlier times, many did not, and that situation is arising more frequently again as increasing numbers of practitioners are employed on teaching and research contracts in some parts of UK academia.

In my own field of music, practitioners form a clear majority of academics in the post-92 sector (not to mention private providers): mostly composers, sound producers and engineers, popular musicians and musical theatre practitioners. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, in previous articles for Times Higher Education, I argued for the importance of the integration of active practitioners into university departments of the performing arts.

Historically, Dartington College of Arts – since 2010 part of Falmouth University – operated the principle that all academics should be practitioners. With this came an intense concentration on the concept of practice-as-research, involving regular theoretical contextualisation and critical self-reflection. The field of performance writing, for instance, was as far away as one could imagine from conventional “creative writing”, focusing on the act of writing and its interactions with other art forms. But Dartington’s utopian ideals would be hard to replicate across the sector at present.

It is noteworthy that less than half of relevant post-92 institutions, and no colleges of higher education or private providers, submitted to the Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies subpanel of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework. I have noted in THE the difficulties relating to practice and the format of the REF, and I acknowledge that it is possible to undertake research without entering it – albeit with limited time and resources. Nor do I believe it is necessary that every academic engage in research. However, I question the “university” credentials of a department in which almost no one apparently does.

Beyond this, there are deeper issues at stake when integrating practitioners who lack familiarity with wider academic culture, values and issues, including critical thinking, dispassionate analysis of subjects independently of personal interests, and, above all, academic freedom.

These concerns extend even to some academic staff with practice-based PhDs, which can (though by no means always do) consist of ordinary practical work accompanied by a commentary applied retrospectively. There are practice-research projects that involve clearly articulated research questions that are critically explored through practice and whose outputs utterly embody the knowledge generated. But other work involves appended commentaries to “spin” practical work as “research-like”, through liberal references to approved intellectual figures, employment of jargon, or maximisation of any superficially “scientific” elements.

Attendance at various recent academic events has amplified to me how much of a disjunction of values exists between practice-researchers and other academics. Some research presentations by practitioners are more akin to sales pitches. Even when their work involves some self-critical thinking, there is often much less questioning of wider basic assumptions that underlie projects.

For example, a research question for a literary figure concerning how to write a text, promote it and oneself, and network with agents and publishers can be considered a form of “soft critical thinking” compared with deeper questions about the nature of literature, its aesthetics, technical devices, social function and relationship to wider culture. Earlier in my academic career, I began work on a module on “music and the marketplace”, which in other hands morphed into “how to get ahead in the musical marketplace”.

Many practitioners have worked in environments where free critical thinking and independent thought are constrained by the demands of institutional or brand loyalty, or the need to please powerful individuals. Many such environments are in part sustained by networks and sometimes conformity to some imposed norms. Academia is, of course, not immune to these factors, but at least the principles of wider intellectual freedom continue to exist.

As an active practitioner and scholar, I have personally encountered more than a few tensions about this in conversations with others. Practitioners can be, perhaps understandably, unsympathetic or even hostile towards a culture that places under regular critical scrutiny their own ideological and other assumptions, or the mechanisms at play in the environments where they have built their reputations.

In this context, government rhetoric linking academia more strongly to the needs of industry has the potential to threaten academic independence and autonomy. Robust legal measures are required to ensure this type of academic freedom is protected as strongly as others in the Freedom of Speech Bill currently going through Parliament.

Beyond this, there should be a statutory qualification for those without a PhD or equivalent demonstrable academic prowess who wish to work in academia; perhaps it could be incorporated within practice-based PhDs. This would not simply be identical to a teaching qualification (PGCHE), nor exclusively about teaching. It would be about the values of the university, which should feed into all types of activities, including administration, tutoring and so on.

It is vital that academics engage with external practice, but practitioners should also engage with the values of academia. Some may fear the uncertainty afforded by open freedom of enquiry, but they need to understand that this is one of research's greatest strengths.

Ian Pace is professor of music and strategic adviser (arts) at City, University of London. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (12)

In my STEM faculty more of the technicians have a pedagogical qualification than the academics, should that to be addressed as well?
That's interesting. There has for some time been an assumption that having a research degree qualifies you to teach. This by no means necessarily follows (which is not to deny the value of research informing teaching), and I wouldn't be opposed to the idea of a statutory pedagogical/academic values qualification for all wishing to teach in universities. So as not to exclude at application time, undertaking this qualification could be made the condition of a job offer.
Again, a "practical" non-solution to a societal problem that certainly cannot be "solved". In reality, society prefers practice to theory, so-called "doers" to intellectuals. Those of us who prefer theory to uninformed practice don't need a qualification. We just think, then act, them qualify the act with further thought.
Anti-intellectualism does run deep in our society (and some others), for sure. But the converse in no sense precludes regular engagement with external concerns - just that such engagement should not mean subservience, as some 'doers' might prefer. I wrote about this at more length here - https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2022/08/03/critical-engagement-with-practice-is-not-the-same-as-subservience-or-being-a-practitioner/
This resonates with me as I find that "Some research presentations by practitioners are more akin to sales pitches" is very common in engineering. Here it is driven by the impact agenda, that everything must have a commercial, societal or policy impact. In engineering it is mostly commercial, hence the "sales pitch" term is so accurate. Better yet, success in the engineering academia is now so dependent on 'impact' that being inquisitive or a critical thinker is just a non-starter. It is mostly about managing a team to deliver on time a pre-defined solution, without taking any steps to do basic research. The more accurate term would be innovation, but that is not research. Funnily all these successful innovators rely on the very few and under appreciated researchers who enable them to innovate. Think of the government last year withdrawing a promised £500m, from the mathematical sciences, but there is no sign withdrawing the money thrown at companies who 'collaborate' with academia.
A bottom line of research is surely that one does not know the outcome before doing the work. When such outcomes are essentially dictated in advance by external partners, or outcomes can dictate funding, it makes a mockery of the process. This is why external engagement must be married to an absolute commitment to academic freedom.
I know plenty of traditional academics who do NOT model the higher values of disinterested learning or allow for meaningful self-reflection.
So do I, plenty, and this is deplorable and an indictment of the quality control mechanisms which allow this. But not so many who would feel comfortable openly opposing the ideals, and so their work and teaching can be critiqued on these grounds.
I know plenty of traditional academics who do NOT model the higher values of disinterested learning or allow for meaningful self-reflection.
It's a fair point, but it depends on whether HEIs see the role of practioners in the same way they do academics - personally, I'd argue that the aim is different (i.e. to bridge gap between theory and practice), but how that fits in with University Strategy (and impacts on REF submission) needs to be carefully determined. However, it is not for individual academics to define practioners' roles and dictate what they need - this crosses the line into being snooty (hence the tension when the author has had this conversation with colleagues). You need to identify strengths and weaknesses of each, and acknowledge that your knowledge of practice is likely to be inferior to theirs and that these differences complement one another, seeing practioners as peers rather than as being at a deficit (they could conversely argue that academics don't have the practical expertise - and they'd be largely right). In the meantime, HEIs need to understand where practioners fit in with their strategy. What I would also say is that if academics are now publicly arguing that practioners need statutory research training, it's only fair that we start a conversation about academics needing statutory initial teacher training - the entire sector largely runs its teaching and learning on the basis of unqualified teachers and assessors (and unqualified external examiners) and we need to start asking if that is acceptable in the face of recent (and ongoing) changes in HE.
Well, I am both a practitioner and a scholar myself, and was a highly active practitioner for a sizeable period before entering academia in my mid-30s. My PhD is not practice-based (I didn’t want to do one such, as I think they are often of questionable scholarly value) but rather in history, analysis and aesthetics. The types of tensions mentioned arise from the fact that some practitioners think they are as capable as anyone of teaching scholarly subjects, but not vice versa - I disagree, and think this attitude contributes to the devaluing of scholarly expertise, and the lowering of teaching standards. Ultimately, we have to ask what distinguishes a university from a practical training college (such as a conservatoire in the case of music), and this does involve scholarship, and scholarly research.
Incidentally, I would agree about the need for statutory teaching training for academics. Just having expertise in a particular research subject (often a narrow field which may lie on the margins of any possible curriculum) is not enough, and students deserve better.