Will replacing PhD professors with practitioners work?

Challenges abound in this approach, which needs to be analysed in depth before a policy is announced

May 19, 2022 01:05 am | Updated 01:21 am IST

PhD teachers are trained to answer “how” and “why” questions. 

PhD teachers are trained to answer “how” and “why” questions.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/Istockphoto

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has recently announced that it will do away with the mandatory PhD qualification to teach in Central Universities (CUs) spread across the country. It purportedly addresses a shortage of qualified faculty in CUs. According to the Ministry of Education data, there were 10,000 teaching positions lying vacant in CUs as of December 2021.

Industry experts and professional practitioners from different fields with domain expertise will be brought in to address the shortage by creating special positions of Professor and Associate Professor of Practice. Recently, UGC Chairman Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar stated that the New Education Policy (NEP) “emphasises better collaboration with industries. The experts need to have demonstrated experience in a given domain.” On the face of it, this appears well-intentioned. However, it also raises an important question. What is the main problem that the UGC is trying to solve? Is it carte blanche to do away with PhDs to meet the shortfall? Are we going to treat PhDs and other professors as equals? If so, it should not be. It is a treacherous path laden with umpteen challenges.

PhD value

What value do good PhDs bring to teaching? Besides imparting cutting-edge knowledge with a sound conceptual base that is relevant for a long time, they train and equip students with skills to face real-life challenges. PhD teachers are trained to answer “how” and “why” questions. Fundamentally they are researchers. Besides transferring existing knowledge to students, they are supposed to create new knowledge through long and deep investigations of relevant issues using academic rigour. They come out with concepts and theories tested and retested by others.

Such fundamental understanding is applicable across industries and over time, and forms the foundation of any application or solution in the real world. To use a marketing example, the theory that rational consumers choose based on perceived superior value will be eternal and unchanging. However, the way a business organisation can create value would change depending on contextual characteristics, consumer behaviour, and available technology. A good PhD teacher would focus on the relevant theories and show how they are applied in practice in various contexts to equip students to face current and future challenges. Apart from imparting knowledge, PhD teachers provide tools for analysis in practice and create critical thinkers prepared to face challenges across industries and time.

Pure practitioners

Practitioners bring knowledge and deep expertise relevant to specific contexts and applications. However, the fast-changing business and technological environment result in limited shelf-life experiences that may quickly become outdated. Since non-PhDs are not trained to conduct original research, they reproduce what others have created to keep their teaching current. Their limited experiences may colour their interpretation of knowledge. Such teachers are typically less aware of the concepts and theoretical frameworks related to their practice domain. Even if they are, they don’t have the same deep understanding of these as a PhD scholar. These limitations would result in students getting knowledge that may be of great value but in a limited context. In our fast-paced world facilitated by technology, change is the only constant. Therefore, only contractual teaching positions would make sense for practitioners.

Also read | With 4-year UG research degree, students can directly enter PhD: UGC draft

Another critical issue is: How would an institution judge the quality of a practitioner it hires? Using the number of years’ of work experience in a field as a yardstick to gauge a practitioner’s potential as a teacher could be misleading.

Although practitioners who understand both academic rigour and theories can make excellent teachers, sometimes even better than a typical PhD teacher, evaluating them is a significant challenge. And such people are not easy to find. Also, a relevant and continuous monitoring system is needed to assess the teaching performance of practitioners; else, they become archaic. Since students cannot adequately evaluate the material taught to them, PhDs are better suited to assess a practitioner’s potential as a teacher and thinker.

A mixed model

A workable and sustainable solution to this situation is to have a mix of practitioners and traditional academicians, as many business schools in India and abroad have realised and implemented, resulting in significant positive outcomes. They first hire PhDs to meet their requirements. Then they hire a limited number of practitioners as clinical and adjunct faculty on contract for a limited time to fulfil specific teaching needs. The responsibilities and evaluation of both these categories of faculty are also different. PhDs still maintain strict quality control.

Where control rests with practitioners, quality is likely to suffer, and the institutions could be politicised with survival battles and one-upmanship. The final losers will be students for whose benefit the whole system is being designed in the first place. CUs can take a leaf out of the business school experience and devise a model that fits them.

Siddharth Singh is Associate Professor of Marketing at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and Mohali. The views expressed are personal He can be reached at Siddharth_singh@isb.edu

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