Unlucky Jim and the ghost in the academic machine

July 18, 2013 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Picture a middle-aged man in a small, unlovely office. He’s a thinker, a writer, an intellectual: he’s an academic at a UK university. (That’s already cause for suspicion.) Let’s call him Jim.

Jim’s trying to keep up with his gigantic and growing workload, but he’s finding it hard to concentrate. This isn’t laziness; he’s used to working evenings, weekends and national holidays. The problem isn’t just the amount of work, either. It’s that Jim is deeply, grindingly demoralised.

Why? Because his university’s acting as if all that matters is money — which wasn’t why Jim went into academia — and their management style leaves much to be desired. He’s fed up with being told to do X by people who don’t seem to realise that if X had been possible, it would have already been done — especially when other parts of the system are demanding that he simultaneously perform  the contradictory action Y. Treat students as units of cash, and as little gods to be propitiated at all costs. Do less admin, but fill in this truckload of forms. Do more research, but give us a whole new set of teaching modules. Oh, and by the way, we’ve changed the system, again, without asking your opinion — so it’s an utter mess; make sure you have it sorted out by the beginning of term.

The work dumped on Jim by others – which needs doing yesterday, of course – is either teaching or admin. The criteria for promotion are purely based on research: the research he’d love to do, if he could only find the time. He can’t see how he’ll ever progress, because the university won’t fund replacements for the several colleagues who’ve left or gone off sick, so there’s no prospect of the deluge letting up. He’s signed up to jobs websites. So, he suspects, has everyone else in his beleaguered department.

As if that weren’t enough, Jim has a much more urgent fear than lack of promotion. Somewhere, he knows, his fate as a researcher is being decided.

Who are the judges? What do they know about him?

Our unlucky academic has no idea.

Are they his professional rivals? Has someone told tales about him? Do they remember his ill-judged remark at a meeting? Has he been too outspoken, too political?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. He can’t be sure.

On what grounds will they judge him?

He doesn’t know that either. They say there are rules, but the rules are so vague, who knows how they’ll be interpreted? The trial is secret, and there’s no appeal. Maybe they just don’t like his work, or him, irrespective of his smart and scholarly writing.

Have his colleagues been judged?

He doesn’t know. No one’s talking, from fear, or shame, or because they don’t yet know their fate.

What if the judgement goes against him?

Again, the judges aren’t talking; among the rest, dire rumours circulate. It may mean demotion, hardship, humiliation – the end of his life as an intellectual. He may be given lesser work, or he may be forced out of his job, thrown on society’s dust heap, his years of specialist training gone to waste.

Is this tormented individual in Stalinist Russia or Khmer Rouge Cambodia? Of course not! He’s not going to be shot, is he? He faces no beatings, no torture. Just the sweating anxiety of a secret, uncontestable judgement.

In academia, the freedom to think is essential. Yet in recent years, a venomous combination of ideology, inertia, and political convenience has crushed UK academics under an enormous workload and the heavy hand of over-management. If you’ve heard talk of intellectual freedom, of open science, of academia as a playground of ideas where truth is spoken to power, forget it. Judgement without appeal, lack of open process and accountability, and an increasingly controlling bureaucracy: this is how our academic institutions are operating as they decide upon their submissions for the Research Excellence Framework, the enormously expensive process that decides who gets what funding, next time round.

Where we most need freedom and open information, the chains are tightening and the veils being drawn. So much is old news.

However, it’s even worse than we believed – because as the REF, that academic Day of Judgement, looms ever larger, so does the ghost of a man so strongly associated with un-freedom that the last place you’d expect to find his ideas put into practice is a university. Critiqued, yes, for politics, history and other humanities courses often use Uncle Joe Stalin as target practice. But adopted as a strategy? And yet, when it comes to deciding which academics get entered for the REF, it seems some universities — because some are worse than others — have taken a tip or several from the Stalinist manual.

Researchers are assessed, by someone else in their university, as REF-able or not. If their work is not deemed sufficiently exciting, revolutionary, ground-breaking, or world-leading, they will not be included in the university’s REF submission. Are the assessors experts in all the work they’re reading? Not necessarily. Within the university, Jim could be rated by someone who knows very little about his work. Indeed, he may be the only scholar in his field at his institution. In which case, what of the supposed peer review?

The scope for conservatism, personal grudges, or downright prejudice is horrifying. Bizarrely, it’s worse than in the actual REF itself, because the national REF panels which make the final, overall judgements are picked for specialist expertise. So if Jim’s work is difficult, unfashionable, or interdisciplinary, he’s in trouble. Let’s imagine that he works on the history of women’s rights in Victorian England. Top-notch male academics have been known to write about women, but it’s generally not a fashionable field. Now, if he’d chosen something twentieth-century, preferably about war …

Worse still, academics tend to see themselves as highly-trained rational thinkers. Could this lead them to overestimate their capacity to make unbiased judgements? Is a sixty-year-old male professor of modern history, who isn’t interested in anything before 1900 and thinks research on women’s rights a waste of time, going to be a fair judge of Jim’s work? The professor thinks so. He may not know about the recent research, in the sciences, which showed that merely putting a woman’s name on a CV – let alone in the title of a paper – was enough to discount its worth in the eyes of academics.

But if the assessor marks a REF submission down, even though it was published in the field’s top journal, what can Jim do about it? He may not even know who assessed him, let alone what out-of-date beliefs they hold. He’ll never know whether another institution might have reacted differently. And because there’s no feedback, there’s no need for the assessors to justify their decisions.

Does it matter? Yes. If Jim’s not REF-able, he’s second-class, and the heart of his academic career may just have been torn out.

University management have been given a stranglehold on research. They can crush minority interests, less fashionable fields, or difficult, unpopular researchers. Bureaucracy has its hands round academia’s throat, and the worst of it is, it’s the universities themselves — and again, some are worse than others — who are doing this to their own researchers.

That’s no surprise, of course. It’s a pattern that crops up again and again: the bosses (here the government) are bad, but their subordinates, the university managers who have to implement their decisions, are worse.

What’s so depressing is that this situation could be improved without the need for a full-scale REF rebellion. It’s easily sorted. Just force all institutions to submit all their researchers to the REF, declare the criteria by which they’re judging ‘world-class’ work, and allow an appeal process. Or else boycott the damn thing, and break its Stalinist grip before it wrecks what’s left of academic freedom.

Or alternatively, pile on the kind of dumb management that treats people as units of production and nurtures the system but not the front-line worker. Tell staff how inadequate they are, how they’ll have to change, how all that matters is student satisfaction and bringing in money. (What about staff satisfaction?) Keep on driving the most original, rebellious minds out of UK academia, and treat creativity as if it can be snagged by a sufficiently detailed form.

The UK’s intellectual output used to be one of our greatest contributions to world culture. Where’s the evidence that current micromanagement is improving it?

Meanwhile, demoralised academics like our unlucky Jim look set to spend ever more time performing to meet REF demands, insofar as they find time to do research at all. That means concentrating on less interdisciplinary work in more established fields, which will enhance conservatism and make academia even more fashion-driven than it is already. It also means ever fewer hours on the kind of learning, teaching and free thinking that Jim and his colleagues went into their profession to do.

If a thinktank had been paid to devise a demonstration of how not to foster UK academia, they could hardly have done a better job than this.

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  1. […] Oddly, this doesn’t stop my government piling up obstacles, like the costly, cruel and inane Research Excellence Framework. Poor management, a plethora of regulations, and soaring numbers of students and managers — […]


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