UK universities increasingly perceive a doctorate as an essential pre-requisite for new academics, according to data from the High Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the overall numbers of UK academic staff holding doctorates rose from 48% to just over 50%. The prevalence of academics with doctorates is not, however, even across the UK higher education sector. In the case of the older UK universities and those with established reputations as ‘research intensive’ institutions, the percentage holding doctorates in 2009-10 was 62.7%, compared to a far lower 29% in the so-called ‘new universities’ formed in the UK after 1992.
It is thought that the trend towards the holding of doctorates among academic staff might well increase as university tuition fees in England rise threefold in 2012 to a maximum of £9000 per year. This development, it is suggested, may result in institutions seeking to enhance their perceived quality by attracting greater numbers of staff with doctorates and advertising these numbers in marketing materials etc., thus emulating behaviour observed in at least some American institutions. This trend may therefore become part of a ‘race to the top’ between universities increasingly trying to foster an image of high quality in an increasingly competitive and marketized higher education sector. However, as at least one prominent thinker on UK high education notes, the relationship between the numbers of academics holding doctorates and the quality of teaching students receive is not a straightforward one.
Moreover, it is clear that there are some institutions, perhaps especially among the newer universities, for whom the benefits of this trend would not be clear. Many such institutions offer courses of study in areas such as professional vocational education, where teaching of these subjects is delivered by those having extensive ‘real world’ experience, perhaps in professional practice or in industry, and yet who may not in many cases hold high level qualifications such as doctorates. It is seems possible, therefore, that such institutions may be disadvantaged by any further moves to equate ‘quality’, broadly construed, with numbers of staff holding doctorates.
Nonetheless, Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of UK larger research intensive universities, seems keen to further the reputation of these universities where, she contends, the great majority of academic staff hold doctorates, describing the numbers of academic staff who do not as being ‘very much in a tiny minority’. Dr Piatt seemingly regards this also as essential to the ‘first class’ teaching and learning experience these universities provide.
Whilst it is certainly the case that holding a doctorate will enhance an individual’s prospects for securing an academic career, the contingent nature of the relationship between such degrees and the provision of high quality teaching for students should be recognized. Moreover, whilst pressures for academic staff to hold doctorates might increase as a result of the forthcoming increases in UK university tuition fees, the numbers of those receiving doctorates may come under pressure, as heavily indebted students perhaps come under increasing pressure to enter the jobs market rather than undertake postgraduate study.