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To professionalise, or not to professionalise, that is (part of) the question

  • 29 March 2022
  • By Stacey Mottershaw and Gareth Bramley

This blog was written by Stacey Mottershaw, Lecturer and Faculty Director of Taught Student Social Mobility at Leeds University Business School and Gareth Bramley, Senior Tutor at the University of Law. Stacey and Gareth are currently in the second year of the EdD programme at the University of Sheffield. 

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) recently released official statistics about academic staff working in higher education from 2020 to 2021. The data covers a range of interesting topics including who is working in higher education, where they work, and how much they are paid. However, the figure that really stood out was that

Sixty-eight per cent of academic staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whose contracts involved teaching students held a teaching qualification.

Source: HESA data

This might seem relatively high, but HESA and, more explicitly, Wonkhe, note that ‘the average masks considerable variation across providers’, with figures ranging from 100 per cent at some institutions, to zero at others. 

There is a lot to take in from this figure, not least the insightful points that David Kernohan raises in the Wonkhe blog about student experience, the variance in teaching qualifications, the (lack of) interest shown in this part of the HESA data, and the ‘creation’ (or borrowing) of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF), something he notes is up for review this year.

Although it seems that higher education is starting to recognise teaching expertise through the increase of teaching focused roles and in-house teaching qualifications, the ability to teach is often not the primary focus of academic recruitment. Given the qualification and licensing requirements found in other areas, such as medicine, law, accounting, and even primary and secondary education, it is interesting to see that most teaching roles in higher education do not require a teaching qualification. Admittedly, PhDs are often required (more on this later), and some PhD students have undertaken teaching activities and training throughout their doctoral studies. However, it still holds true that there is no set rule about this across the profession. So, the question is: should teaching staff in HE be required to have, or at least be working towards, a teaching qualification?

Some may question the fairness of this in the current climate, where academic staff are already going above and beyond to ensure the best experience for their students (to breaking point, according to the UCU, when explaining the ongoing four fights dispute). However, we believe that the question is especially relevant now, with teaching staff having pivoted during the early stages of the pandemic to apply existing pedagogical expertise to new forms of delivery, in a sector that is not always known for its agility. In some cases, staff are reverting to pre-pandemic practices, or adapting provision according to lessons learned over the last two years, occupying a new liminal space that is neither fully the same as it was before, nor fully changed. 

In addition to questions about professionalising teaching in the higher education sector, the proportion of teaching qualifications found in higher education also touched on something the authors of this post discussed at the start of our own doctoral journeys – how might studying whilst teaching benefit our practice? Although this is more about how we can learn from our own experiences of being a student than it is about studying for specific teaching qualifications, it is feasible to suggest that teaching enhancement courses might be a way for academic staff to take on the dual role of student-practitioner.

As well as developing our knowledge of research in education, participation in the EdD course has given us a taste of what it is like to be a student, most notably during a global pandemic. This has offered us insights into the experiences of our own students, an understanding of the barriers they face in making the most of their education (particularly with online components), and genuine empathy when they are experiencing difficulties. While studying, we hear our students’ voices in the questions we ourselves ask of our tutors, and we also hear ourselves in the questions our students ask of us. 

Although we’re in favour of increasing the number of academic staff with teaching qualifications, the sector needs to be mindful of how any qualification requirement is put into practice to ensure that it does not further convolute the academic pipeline. This is particularly important for under-represented groups who might find it difficult to complete a teaching qualification prior to joining the academy. It is already challenging for those with under-represented characteristics to access academic roles, particularly in a sector with notoriously precarious job security.

A brief review of job specifications for teaching posts in higher education institutions shows us that a PhD is often considered ‘essential’ even for teaching focused roles, where a teaching qualification or equivalent experience may actually be preferable. In much the same way that PhD requirements shouldn’t be used to make recruitment easier (e.g. as a quick way of condensing the applicant pool), if policy eventually dictates that those who teach in the sector require a qualification to do so, then this needs to be enacted with the utmost care and respect for those already in the sector and those new to it, to ensure that such a policy isn’t co-opted by institutions to restrict access for those who are not perceived to be one of them.  

Overall, we’re all for more academic staff undertaking teaching qualifications, not just to professionalise the academy, but to enhance their practice by experiencing what it is like to be a student again. However, if qualifications are to be mandated, the sector needs to carefully consider how it will impact both current staff and prospective candidates within the academic pipeline.

On Thursday 31 March 2022, HEPI – with support from the University of St Andrews – is publishing a major new paper on the relatively low level of understanding of China in the UK, measured, for example, by the number of school pupils studying Mandarin or the number of undergraduates on Chinese Studies programmes. On the day of publication, we are hosting a webinar to discuss the issues. To register for a free place, please click here.

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  1. Paul Vincent Smith says:

    An interesting blog. I find it notable that in HE we’re content to talk about teaching qualifications in the same way that other fields, not least at other levels of education, tend to insist on earning qualifications in advance of working in that field. Of course, some on the job component is needed, but it seems to me that we are happy to credentialise prior experience in our HE teaching, rather than provide a qualification, or part thereof, before setting foot in the classroom – of course the picture varies, as you say.

    Sadly I’ve been around long enough to remember the time when there was an extended discourse on teaching qualifications, but that seems to have been dropped in favour of the HEA Fellowship model.

    On under-represented groups – you write that they might struggle to gain teaching qualifications prior to entering the academy – why would they have to? I would think that the PhD is an ideal time to introduce some element of teaching instruction. With the best will in the world, a prior qualification in HE (or 16-19, etc.) teaching is something few will hold. The most realistic scenario is probably to grab doctoral students early on and oblige them to be involved in some training if they have any intention of teaching during their studies and beyond.

    I’m also not sure what you’re saying about the changes brought on by the pandemic and now becoming a “third space” as we try to combine new lessons with traditional preferences. Is it the case that we shouldn’t be reverting to pre-pandemic practices? Are you saying that the new, liminal space is a productive one? If so, then one-time-only qualifications might be less of a priority than continuous development, as the forms of and opportunities for new teaching practice change and develop apace.

  2. albert wright says:

    I think we need to have greater clarity about what we mean by “qualified to teach” compared to “qualified to do”.

    There is an old saying that “those who can, do, those who can’t teach”. Within the education sector all teachers who teach in schools are required to have a teaching qualification to help ensure they can do the job of teaching (taking into account the way different people learn) as well as knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching.

    On the other hand, many people prefer to learn and be taught by, those who have a passion for their subject and are at the cutting edge of advancing knowledge.

    There needs to be a balance. However, I must say I was surprised when in a discussion with senior members of an academic institution on how they might increase the number of students attending their institution and someone suggested they consult the professor of marketing, a member of that department did say “we only teach marketing, we don’t do it”.

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