UK higher education doctoral qualifications

UK universities increasingly view a PhD as a prerequisite for new academics, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the total number of UK faculty holding a PhD rose from 48% to just over 50%. However, the spread of academics with PhDs is not even across the higher education sector in the UK. In the case of older UK universities and those with an established reputation as ‘research-intensive’ institutions, the proportion of PhD holders in 2009-10 was 62.7%, compared to a much lower 29% in the so-called ‘new universities’ that formed in the UK after 1992.[1]

It is believed that the trend towards PhDs among faculty may increase with university tuition fees in England tripling in 2012 to a maximum of £9,000 per annum. It is suggested that this development may lead to organizations seeking to enhance their perceived quality by attracting greater numbers of employees with PhDs and advertising these figures in marketing materials etc., thus mimicking the behavior observed in at least some US institutions. Thus, this trend may become part of a ‘race to the top’ among universities that are increasingly trying to promote and market an image of high quality in an increasingly competitive higher education sector. However, as at least one prominent thinker has noted in notes on higher education in the UK, the relationship between the number of academics with PhDs and the quality of teaching students receive is not a direct one.

Moreover, there are clearly some institutions, perhaps especially among the newer universities, for whom the benefits of this trend will not be apparent. Many of these institutions offer courses in areas such as vocational vocational education, where these subjects are taught by those who have extensive ‘real world’ experience, perhaps in professional practice or in industry, yet may in many cases not have high-level qualifications such as Ph.D. It therefore seems possible that such institutions could be at a disadvantage because of any further moves to equate ‘quality’, in its broad interpretation, with the number of employees with a Ph.D.

However Wendy Pyatt, managing director of the Russell Group of the UK’s larger research universities, seems keen to boost the reputation of these universities as the vast majority of faculty hold PhDs, describing the numbers of faculty who do not as “a very small minority”. It seems that Dr. Bayat considers this also essential to the ‘first class’ teaching and learning experience that these universities provide. [2]

While it is certain that obtaining a PhD will enhance one’s prospects for securing an academic career, the episodic nature of the relationship between these degrees and the provision of a high-quality education to students must be recognized. Moreover, while pressures on faculty to obtain PhDs may increase as a result of upcoming increases in the UK university Tuition fees, numbers of PhDs may come under pressure, as heavily indebted students may be under increasing pressure to enter the workforce rather than undertake graduate studies.

[1] Data reported in the02/17/11, pp. 6-7

[2] Ibid.

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