Can we make academia better?

In recent days I’ve been pleased to have been involved — somewhat tangentially — in some grass-roots efforts to build a new type of academic research environment.  More than anything I’ve been happy to find that even more colleagues than I anticipated are upset about the current direction of academic institutions.

I feel quite strongly that at the present moment, we academics are complicit in a system which actively works against the values we claim to cherish.  We work for institutions that entrench class divisions, that produce education as a factory line intended to manufacture compliant drones for industry, that view themselves as focused more on contribution to the global economic order than as centres for learning and discovery.  We apply for grants designed to push research in whatever direction happens to be fashionable, that employ new researchers on fixed-term contracts with no job security, that demand that research be monetised, commercialised, and productive of ‘economic impact’.  We do these things while fully cognizant of their negative impact on academic inquiry and on higher education as a whole, and yet by and large we do nothing at all to put a stop to this nonsense.

I remain in academia at this point purely because of a perhaps naive belief that science has the potential to contribute ideas that challenge our society and cause it to grow and change in exciting ways.  But as time goes on, the characteristics of the academic world which previously allowed it to excel in long-term, innovative thinking are being eroded away.  Science now functions in bite-sized chunks, projects of five years or less further subdivided into work packages, six-month publication plans and an implicit acceptance that despite all evidence to the contrary, endless tedious incremental advances in our particular sub-fields will eventually lead to the profound innovations in thought that we seek.

I submit that the current broken structures of academia succeed only in the sense of further perpetuating that same structure.  The grant funding infrastructure allows people who are able to apply for grants (i.e., not fixed-term contract academics or us unfortunate foreign postdocs) to continue to acquire money to do some research that is currently fashionable, and in the process delegate all the actual work to the academic underclass of PhDs and postdocs.  It allows the University system to continue to employ 74% of its workers on fixed-term contracts with no security, and in the process destroy work-life balance for those workers, entrench an enormous and shameful gender divide in academia (which persists — 81% of the professors at Southampton are male), and turn a growing number of potentially creative, innovative people into research production engines who are optimised to generate those incremental advances that satisfy whoever provided the grant money that we are being sufficiently clever.

Of course, the current structure is also very good at producing papers, which have become the most desired ‘output’ of academic research.  And yet, in an environment where we already know that some 70% of scientists regularly cite papers that they have never read, and where workloads are so ridiculously high that any hope of catching up on that reading is pure fantasy, how exactly do we benefit from this overproduction of papers?  Apparently, the UK alone produced 124,000 journal papers last year — not counting innumerable conference papers, abstracts, and working papers.  If we ask ourselves honestly, how many of these are actually worth reading?  How many make an advance interesting enough to merit regular citation and discussion?  1%?  Less?

Meanwhile, as we overproduce papers we continue to overproduce PhD students.  We bring in sharp young minds with the promise of either taking this experience into valuable positions in industry (no longer particularly true), or secure academic positions (definitely not true).  We bring them in to do our work for us, to produce nice papers for journals and conferences, and to bring forward those interesting ideas that we no longer have the time and inclination to produce ourselves.  We do all this without providing a sensible infrastructure for career development or advice, and despite a nagging feeling that this probably isn’t very nice, we continue to do so in order to please our superiors and those who hold the purse-strings.

This is not to say that doing a PhD doesn’t have its own intrinsic value; my PhD was a very valuable experience, and I believe it made me a better and more rigorous thinker.  But in a world where youth unemployment sits at 25% or higher across most of Europe, where less than one half of one percent of PhD recipients will get permanent academic jobs, this is no longer sufficient.  We have a duty of care to these students, and we fail at that duty in many instances.

I believe that at this point we need to take stock of where we are, to acknowledge and accept that we need to change the status quo significantly, and that set about doing that collectively.  I have no illusions that this will happen easily.

But I do feel that there are a few small things that almost all of us can do to start pushing back against the institutional strictures that keep us in this state of affairs.  If, in parallel to these small changes, a few of us set out to experiment with new ways of doing things — as in the case of the Open Systems Institute linked above — then perhaps we can start to make progress.

So I propose that we add a few things to our task lists:

1) Take care of your students.  When new PhD students arrive, take them aside and ensure that they know precisely what they are getting into.  Remind them of the difficulties of the academic life, and that it is A) not fun at all if they wish to have any sort of life or job security, and B) extremely unlikely that they will be part of the 0.5% that become professors, no matter how clever they feel they may be.

2) Only apply for grants that will contribute positively to the academic environment.  Ensure that all publications produced are to be open-access, and that all short-term funding for researchers allows for them to seek promotion, career development, and teaching opportunities.  Apply for grants that make sense for your goals, not just ones that pay out big or make your department look fashionable.

3) Join your union.  The Universities are not your friends, nor are the UK Research Councils.  If something goes wrong, the University will not take care of you.  They will laugh at you if you try to take them on in an employment tribunal without trade union assistance.  UCU is a coalition consisting of your friends and colleagues, and we fight for you every day of the week; but if you don’t join us, we can’t help you when things get rough.  At the same time, we constantly fight for better working conditions, for putting an end to fixed-term contracts, for better deals for students both undergraduate and postgraduate.  If we work together we can make progress bit by bit and improve our working environment.

4) Make all your publications open access.  Use your institutional paper repositories, post pre-prints on your blog or your personal website.  Post papers on Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and wherever else you can.  Sign up to boycott Elsevier at thecostofknowledge.com, and keep a watchful eye on for-profit academic publishers in general.

5) Engage with your colleagues.  Don’t allow yourself to be ranked and rated as a self-contained entity, separate from your peers.  Talk to them, work with them — rebuild the collegial ideal that the current ‘audit culture’ of academia (and the increasingly common performance-related pay scheme) is attempting to destroy.

As it stands now, we have a long road ahead if we wish to make things better.  Students in the UK will soon be burdened with immense debt if they have the audacity to want to educate themselves.  Universities are increasingly moving towards a private-sector mentality focused on productivity at all cost, with no regard for the negative effects of this push on work-life balance, equality and innovation.  Unless we work together, unless we start rebelling in whatever small ways we can and work together in the background on the larger issues, these things will only get worse.

(And yes, before anyone asks, I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is here — I’m President of my UCU branch, every publication I have is available online for free somewhere, and I work in collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.  I’m unable to help in treating students better or applying for better grants, of course, since I’m a postdoc and thus unable to participate in these parts of the system anyway.)

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3 thoughts on “Can we make academia better?

  1. Denis Nicole says:

    “…that produce education as a factory line intended to manufacture compliant drones for industry”.
    No. Have a look at this week’s Doonesbury.

    http://doonesbury.slate.com/strip/archive/2012/8/9

    It’s about shaking down the taxpayer. How many of those £6000/yr loans will result in degrees? In jobs? How many will be paid back?

    Think of the Olympic opening. Compliant drones moved from the land to the factories and then the factories went too. That’s the human crisis of today: Big Capital simply does not need most of the people.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/01/us-foxconn-robots-idUSTRE77016B20110801

    • I don’t disagree. A healthy society that values human happiness wouldn’t allow constant, systemic unemployment and the attendant misery that goes with it.

      But I still feel that something fundamental was lost to our cause when university degrees became about getting a “real job” rather than getting educated; I’d also argue that we academics have been complicit in allowing this narrative to build over the years. Of course university degrees are very far from a guarantee of a “real job”, particularly in the current economic mire. Not to mention that those “real jobs” are rarely as useful or critical to society as those jobs that keep our society working on a fundamental level (we could all live just fine if all the marketing execs went on strike for a year, but when the binmen go on strike we suffer immediately). But we built that narrative because it gets students in and keeps us in work, and we gleefully ignore the damage caused.

      Perhaps I should have clarified that I was referring to the stated objective of academia in today’s society, rather than implying it is a real objective. Nevertheless, I stand by the statement that education as a factory line is incredibly damaging to the students themselves, regardless of its intentions:

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