A ‘cohesive and self-critical academic community’: an ideal under threat

Opinion piece


An article in Times Higher Education on 2 March collected suggestions from a ‘panel of university administration experts’ on the best way to frame a job advertisement. Wondering where suitably qualified and ‘excellent’ teachers are going to be found to staff an ever-expanding English higher education system as the TEF evolves, I have been exploring such advertisements in recent months.

If institutional autonomy is to remain a fundamental of higher education provision, with new providers trusted to set and maintain standards, what does that imply for the recruitment of a provider’s academic staff? Among the Government’s background papers published in connection with the Higher Education and Research Bill is the Factsheet on Degree Awarding Powers and University Title (January 2017). It explains that the proposed:

reforms are aimed at removing unnecessary barriers that may currently stand in the way of providers that can demonstrate that they have:

  • the ability to design and deliver high quality HE degree courses,
  • the ability to set and maintain academic standards, and
  • their teaching is informed by scholarship and research.

So it is recognised that having academic staff of sufficient quality remains fundamental to justifying the institutional autonomy of new providers as much as to satisfactory ‘teaching performance’ in the TEF.

A teacher at higher education level has traditionally been expected to have academic qualifications over and above those needed to teach to A-Level GCE (Level 3 of the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) ). These are defined by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in line with Government guidance for the grant of degree-awarding powers and university title. The guiding principle is that lecturers in higher education should be qualified to teach at the level of the award offered, with research degrees therefore requiring research-active staff. The Government guidance was revised in September 2015 and further revision is expected to be needed under the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Bill s.40 and following.

The range of subjects in which it is possible to gain a degree has expanded hugely in recent years and so have the modes of study. ‘Workplace learning’, apprenticeship degrees, the need to meet the accreditation requirements of professional and regulatory bodies, vocational courses, frequently call for non-traditional teaching staff. ‘Vacancies’ advertisements for academic staff now often include terms such as ‘professional qualification’ or ‘experience’ as alternatives to the possession of even an undergraduate degree.

There is a further longstanding expectation, going beyond recruiting suitably-qualified academic staff piecemeal. This is that an institution’s academic staff will form a ‘self-critical academic community’ in setting and maintaining standards. In 1985 the Lindop Report (2.5) said that:

Traditionally the university degree was an acknowledgement, by the self-governing community of scholars which constituted the university in its wider sense, of academic attainment such as to warrant full membership of the community.

Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, added in a House of Commons Written Answer 17 March 1986:

The Government share the [Lindop] committee’s view that the most effective safeguard of an institution’s academic standards is the existence within it of a strong, cohesive and self-critical academic community. In future, the main purpose of external validating arrangements must be to foster the development of such communities.

Kenneth Clarke, as Secretary of State for Education and Science, maintained the principle in the House of Commons, 16 December 1991, speaking of

Criteria for Degree Awarding Powers

The principal criterion would be that any institution seeking degree awarding power for taught courses would need to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective assurance and enhancement systems.

Jo Johnson, in the House of Commons Higher Education and Research Bill Committee, 15 September 2016, reiterated the expectation that a university is: expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community that provides excellent learning opportunities for people, the majority of whom are studying to degree level or above. We expect teaching at such an institution to be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice.

This expectation that providers with degree-awarding powers or university title will be entitled to autonomy because they employ a critical mass of appropriately qualified academic staff therefore remains fundamental.

The Factsheet gives three Case Studies, describing scenarios in which a new provider might apply successfully for degree awarding powers, all making that assumption. In all three the key element is the presence of a group of ‘experienced academics’. One is a company wishing to set up a new specialist provider. It ‘employs a group of experienced academics‘. Another is an existing ‘world-renowned’ US provider wanting to set up in England and offer English degrees. It sends across the Atlantic ‘an experienced team of academics’. A third is a ‘spin-off’ from a ‘top-ten University’ initiated by ‘a group of leading academics’.

But in the real world much has changed in the patterns of recruitment of academic staff. Advertisements mentioning research as an ‘essential’ requirement now cluster in the older universities, though a number of the newer providers say the possession of a doctorate or a willingness to seek one is ‘desirable’. There is a visible trend towards increasing the number of teaching-only contracts even in ‘research-intensive’ universities. Where the degree is in a vocational subject the job advertisement may be adjusted accordingly. Bought-in and externally assessed courses such as Pearson-Edexcel HNC and HND courses at levels 4 and 5 may plausibly be delivered by teachers without the traditional qualifications of a member of the academic staff envisaged by Lindop and the policy-makers who continue to quote him.

The range of types of employment contract on offer in higher education has been broadening in the direction of the ‘insecure’, though in what proportions it is hard to quantify exactly. Data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency includes information on fixed-term contract numbers, but does not make visible in detail the numbers or proportions of staff on hourly-paid or zero-hours contracts. (Some individuals may of course seek a zero-hour contract because of its flexibility, but the wording of job advertisements suggests it is rarely a matter of choice):

UCU has always been clear that those people returned by universities as atypical academics only represent a part of the real hourly-paid workforce. The rest are concealed within fixed-term contract data.

This pattern of recruitment undermines the expectation that providers will maintain an established ‘community’ of academic staff.

There seems to be a need for some joining-up of ideal and reality to ensure that before the OfS grants degree-awarding powers or university title, the new providers warrant the institutional autonomy they will gain if they succeed by showing that in their lecturers they have that ‘critical community’ of academic staff.