Tenure track and its branch line … some speculative thoughts

A report here from Canada where career-teaching positions are becoming increasingly common, along side career-researching positions. Some interesting data is presented, such as the facts that career higher education teachers produce students who are more enthusiastic about the subject, and receive higher grades, than when taught by research staff. I don’t find this surprising, but I suggest it reflects more the lack of professionalisation of higher education teaching than any intrinsic difference of quality or approach. The fact is that we train researchers to the nth degree, and train primary and secondary teachers likewise — but as near as I can tell, world-wide, higher education teaching remains a stubbornly amateur field.

The report also reflects the idea that higher education teachers must be engaging with up-to-date research, if they are going to be able to work at that level. It follows that teaching-tenure staff are just research staff with a lot less time on their hands, which is not a terribly productive situation for anyone.

One admittedly rather speculative way of thinking about this is in terms of what a university degree is supposed to mean in terms of the quantity of skills or knowledge acquired. Originally, the highest degree that would be obtained was a Masters, equivalent to the University of Paris’ ‘License to Teach’ (Licentia docendi).  When the first ‘modern’ universities appeared in German at the beginning of the 19th Century, what we now call a research degree was introduced, but remained a rarity. The initial four (or however many) year period made a student into an expert, and only a very few research degrees were offered and obtained.. By the middle and end of that century, the PhD idea had become very popular in Germany and then the United States as a way of extending one’s knowledge and establishing one’s research credentials. The UK introduced PhDs as late as 1917. This is normally understood in terms of the increasing need for an valuing of researchers, both within and outside universities, and in terms of the need for specialisation in all disciplines. However, can part of this long historical development be understood in terms of the increasing quantity of information and skills needed to become proficient in any given discipline? Or, in brief, there is just so much more to know?

If so, and if this trend continues, the first years of a University degree are or are becoming — for all practical purposes — essentially what the last years of a secondary education were for decades ago. A grounding in basic knowledge and skills: e.g. mathematical tools, lab techniques, etc. It would follow that there is no reason why a University should not have teaching-tenure staff, who need not participate in research activity, and who may quite rightly be unaware of what is happening in the latest journals in their field. They are no less useful at this level than good teachers are in high schools.

HOWEVER, there is a sting in this tale. Once this is admitted, then ALSO the standard model of university education has to change. It becomes plausible to argue that no longer are three or four years sufficient for anything beyond what a high school diploma or set of A-levels meant thirty-odd years ago. It becomes plausible to argue also that university education should be a requirement of all citizens, rather than an option — in the same way that many countries have compulsory education up to 16 or 18; and that what we now call post-graduate degrees should be the first optional stage; and moreover that research of any kind should be no more expected of undergraduate teachers at any university than it is among those in secondary schools. The funding implications would be enormous, the cultural change no less so. We haven’t had a reform of further and higher education of that magnitude since … well since Germany in the first years of the 19th Century. Maybe it is time.

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