Less than half of UK academic staff have a PhD

Gwen Jing - Deputy News Editor 12 November 2012

A recent study raises concerns about how well qualified British academics are. It showed that only a minority of 45.7% of academic staff possess a PhD. The Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University (pictured above) revealed last week that this figure is only just over half if the 9.9% of academics with “unknown” qualifications are excluded, Professor Malcolm Tight says his results show that the level of qualification “does seem rather low” and that they suggest academics at British universities are “little or no better qualified than those they are teaching”.

The report, ‘Academic Staff in UK Higher Education Institutions: Are They Fit for Purpose?’ conducts secondary data analysis using the latest data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) for 2010-11, which records the highest qualifications held by 181,185 academic staff employed in 165 UK HE institutions.

The study shows that the proportions of doctorate degrees vary depending on the time commitment of academics, with 58.4% of full-time academics possessing a PhD in contrast to only 21.8% for part-time academics.

Variations are also apparent between institutions. Universities founded before 1992 were found to have many more full-time academic staff with doctorates: 67 of 73 such institutions had over 50% of their full-time staff with PhDs. Figures for the University of Cambridge show 59.8% of full time academic staff with a doctorate, and 34.6% part-time academics. This is compared to only 35 of 41 post-1992 universities which have between 20% and 50% of full-time staff with doctorates.

Ten of the universities founded before 1992 have over 80% of their full-time academic staff qualified to doctoral level, including Bristol University, Lancaster University and the London School of Economics – neither Cambridge nor Oxford made it into the top ten. This is despite the study’s findings that Oxbridge are among the six pre-1992 universities which have over half of their academic staff on research-only contracts.

Professor Tight describes it as “somewhat surprising” that “more attention is not given to ensuring that academics’ training is adequate in their research function”.

He suggests that lower qualification levels could be due to the emphasis placed by post-92 universities on vocational subjects, such that lecturers were more likely to be recruited mid-career from professions such as teaching, nursing and accountancy. Institutions that only recently acquired university status might not be expected to have many staff with doctorates.

Stephanie Marshall, Deputy Chief Executive of Research and Policy at the Higher Education Academy, which promotes good quality teaching in universities, argues that possessing a PhD is not essential to becoming an academic. “While it clearly demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of a specific area of study, a doctorate doesn’t necessarily indicate an academic’s ability to communicate that knowledge effectively to their students”, she claims.

Despite some prevailing measurement uncertainties, such as the exclusion of certain types of “academics” and the rounding of the HESA headcount data to multiples of five, the data provides a fairly comprehensive set, highlighting that British academics are perhaps not as well qualified as might be expected.

Gwen Jing – Deputy News Editor