Education has become a hot topic in recent months with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. The issue has mainly been covered in two respects: how will students go back to universities and in-classroom settings with so many variables due to Covid-19, and how will universities that are now in-debt stay afloat and manage the crisis?
These questions come at a transitional period in the history of modern education. For one, more people today are taking online and affordable learning courses to get the skills they need faster at an upfront lower cost. Young professionals are signing onto the idea everywhere that while four-year degree programs are important, the best thing one can do in any respective industry is to re-brand themselves with platforms like Impactio or LinkedIn to at least get noticed.
This is also accompanied by a belief that getting a Masters degree is more than sufficient in today’s working world, and going on to get a five or six-year Ph.D. may not be worth it, given that the probability of obtaining a job in academia is still relatively low given the number of applicants compared to the number of slots available.
Thus the transition that America and Western education finds itself in is indeed a fragile one. New ways of thinking are putting shocks on the old system of traditionalism. But maybe other options can be explored if administrations have the courage to do so.
Affordability and the politics of teaching
For anyone doing a quick search for university undergraduate teaching positions, there is still an overwhelming propensity for jobs that say, “Minimum qualification is a Masters degree, but Ph.D. is preferred”. This is one of the hallmarks of education in modern times, and there’s a reason behind it. Hiring an academic with a Ph.D. looks better for an institution, and also justifies the price of classes that are being sold to students. If deans want expertise in a subject, hiring someone with a Masters's degree is taking too many chances compared with someone who has been in academia for already 10 years.
But this doesn’t always transcend to a good classroom experience. In fact, there is still no research on whether or not those who have become teachers through some different avenue, compared with PhDs, produce better professors in the long run. Maybe a Ph.D. is needed to teach highly specialized classes, but it’s also becoming a highly inefficient process for hiring at a time when universities can’t afford to have any inefficiencies in the ways they operate thanks to Covid-19.
Gaps in teaching and the need for more candidates
A possible second option for some higher education institutions would be to re-consider the kind of teaching departments they want to have in the first place, meaning do they want to focus on the prestige of a degree or the capability of the professional. Having a professor that is in the middle of obtaining a Ph.D. or recently finished does not mean the quality of such a professor is higher than a candidate who does not have this terminal degree.
The problem is that universities don’t want to hire new faculty members with only a Master's degree, in most cases. Here are some of the reasons:
- They believe the candidate is too young and without enough life experiences
- They don’t want to change the makeup of professors on a grand scale
- They don’t want to risk adopting a new model that might work for university students
If teaching is about improving a student's cognitive ability to learn, then this skill should be paramount in the hiring process. In addition, universities can leverage their financial situation by offering competitive salaries to graduates with Masters degrees that are more affordable than trying to hire a Ph.D. graduate.
The jury is not out on this issue just yet, but the coming academic year holds many uncertainties. While getting a Ph.D. is a valuable experience and in many ways, a lifetime achievement, its correlation with being a teacher when good teachers are needed today in a much leaner model is starting to not make sense. Universities will have to face the much harder to answer questions about their programs and the effectiveness of their teaching methods now that the landscape for education is changing quickly.