What are academics for?

July 25, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Medeleeff by repin

Why do we have these people? We see plenty of them; they’re always in the media. They talk, a lot. But what’s the point of academics?

We know why we have universities and colleges. They’re safe houses, quarantining intellectuals so that the rest of us only have to put up with them at a distance, buffered by radio, TV or internet. People who don’t really fit are collected into pleasant refuges where they have others like themselves to keep them company. We’re OK with that. One mark of a good society is how it treats its academics.

All we ask in return is that they teach some vaguely useful stuff to kids to help them find jobs, while allowing the dear little things to a) make the friends who’ll help them out in later life and b) get the partying (mostly) out of their systems.

Oh, and there’s paperwork — and boy, do academics whinge about that. Like no one else faces hateful bureaucracies.

But why have academics at all? Can’t the teaching be done by teachers, instead of people who’d really rather be researching the sex lives of protons, or some such?

Traditional answers to this question are as follows:

1) Academics provide the creative sparks which drive innovation

Isaac Asimov‘s short story ‘Profession‘ makes this claim. In its future Earth, children are selected for specific jobs based on their brain structure, and programmed with the necessary knowledge. Asimov asks how, in such a system, creativity is sustained, and links creativity to rebelliousness and to — in conventional terms — failure.

Governments make this claim too, but they don’t see the need for rebelliousness, and they do appear to see creativity purely as a money-making tool.  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 — but not academics — could have been designed to stamp out the creative impulse. Either our masters are stupid, or they’re not listening to front-line people, or ideology can trump both evidence and economics. My guess would be it’s a mix of the latter two.

2) Academics create, store and pass on knowledge

Computers can do that. They used only to store stuff, but online teaching’s becoming ever more common, despite its problems. And data-crunching algorithms are being loosed on big datasets to find new ideas. At present, we still need academics to programme the crunchers and interpret the results. Students also seem to prefer being taught by humans. But part of the anxiety cascading through academia at the moment may be due to a feeling that they are undervalued, and may become superfluous, in a system whose overriding ethos is about money.

3) Academics speak truth to power

I wish. Those who do generally don’t get a hearing, and most don’t. Academics may be creative, but that doesn’t make them natural activists. Besides, the system comes down increasingly hard on troublemakers. (The current enthusiasm for open access publishing is, paradoxically, making things worse: because universities have to pay the author fee, they’re now deciding who gets published, giving them a hefty motivational lever for irksome faculty.)

4) Academics help us become better citizens

Do we have any evidence for this? As an academic myself, I’d like to believe that we’re gatekeepers, helping people make sense of life’s complexities. Human beings do seem to enjoy understanding stuff, judging by the kind folks who’ve thanked me for ‘making it so clear’ about brain research. So maybe academics provide that particular reward.

Could it be that our education systems haven’t yet succeeded in starving the desire to think out of everyone, and our politics haven’t yet brought us all to believe that the only things that matter in life are cash and career?

5) Academics are part of the entertainment industry

In darker moments, I wonder: is this what it’s come down to? Watching the news, and the newsreaders’ expressions as they report on some new scientific finding, it’s sometimes hard not to hear a patronising tone. ‘Just look at what these inventive people have come up with now, girls and boys! Whatever will they think of next? And now, here’s Sally with the weather.’

Academics are more and more judged by impact: whether they can get a TV tie-in, or ‘engage the community’. But the community has plenty else to think about, so the intellectuals compete to offer light relief from the daily grind. And yet, some of the things they’re saying may really matter. Is ‘infotainment’ always appropriate?


Creators, interpreters, truth-tellers, guides, or entertainers: what are academics for? What should they be for? Are their purposes changing, and if so, for better or worse? And who’s driving that change?

Maybe that’s what academics are for! Asking questions …


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.

Wearily kissing the rod: UK academics and the REF

November 15, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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(a long post, this one, about who gets research money)

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the UK government’s way of assigning money for academic research.

It’ll happen in 2014. Work to prepare for it has been ongoing since its predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise, finished, if not before.

As Jenny Rohn has recently commented in the Guardian,and many others have also said, the REF is a real problem for UK science, and for academia in general. To solve that problem, we need to understand why the REF is happening.

The core issue, as the government sees it, is that limited resources and the pressure to provide value for money (right now) create a demand that money should only be spent on good research. Unfortunately, it can take decades to work out which research is good.

There’s also considerable debate about what good research is. Academics tend to think of good research as being scholarly: rigorous in its methods, intellectually coherent and persuasive, novel and insightful (it adds new knowledge), enriching (it adds new understanding, e.g. by relating previously unrelated phenomena), and fruitful (it generates lots of new ideas). Governments and funders seem to think of good research as being efficient at generating lots of future research jobs, cash for the economy, or positive publicity for UK PLC. But scholarship can cost money and take time without producing immediate economic rewards, so it appears inefficient over the short term of a government (5 years) or a REF assessment cycle (4 years).

What to do? Well, you could try short-circuiting the judgement of posterity by asking current academics what they think of other people’s research. Brilliant! That ticks all the boxes of consultation, transparency, stakeholder participation, and so on.

Unfortunately, it also has its problems. For one, there is as yet no firm evidence that having an assessment system like the REF improves research quality. Senior academics like Stefan Collini have argued that it will make things worse, not better. But for all that, it’s going ahead with surprisingly little protest from academia.

Why? Here are some reasons that may be relevant.

1) It’s conservative. The REF emasculates one major source of resistance, the ideal of academic independence, because the government can turn round to academics and say, ‘Hey, you’re the people making the judgements, all we’re doing is divvying up the funding at the end’. Actually, it’s not so much the academics as the university managers who make the judgements, because they set the criteria for who’s ‘REFable’ among their staff. This intensifies conservative tendencies, because fashionable topics are rewarded more; yet academia needs more new ideas, not fewer. Because universities do much of the rating in advance, by choosing whose work to submit to the REF, that conservatism sets in early. Because it is more senior staff who do much of the rating, that adds to the risk that new ideas will be squeezed out.

Making institutions choose whom they submit is the biggest flaw in the system, in my view. Academics need to be judged by their peers — other academics who are expert in their field. Asking a psychologist to rate the work of a neuroscientist in the same university department might make sense if the psychologist works on something brain-related, but if they don’t? If the psychologist’s field is the closest in that department to what the neuroscientist is doing, chances are they’ll get to decide their REFability, whether or not they speak the same language, think about science in the same way, or understand the research. Let’s hope the psychologist isn’t an undeclared cat lover who rates the neuroscientist down because they’re doing animal research. At least in a grant application you’ve some chance that assessors will be experts in your field!

2) It’s bad for diversity. The REF structure allows government to externalise much of the cost. Only those submitted as REFable will then have their work assessed by an expert panel. The considerable downside is discrimination against minority topics, which are less likely to be assessed by expert colleagues in the same institution, since there may not be any. Good scholarship should be rewarded whatever the topic, but in practice that doesn’t happen. Instead, people look at a piece of work, think, ‘this is a marginal subject’, or ‘I don’t like this person’s attitude’, and downgrade it in REF terms, whatever its intellectual quality. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of fashionable nonsense earning plaudits, even though it is less rigorous, less intellectually coherent, perhaps less fruitful (and often not even as well-written). Academics aren’t immune to the human herd instinct, and the REF gives it free rein. Work published in top-ranking journals and by top-ranking international publishers can thus be ranked so low by colleagues that it may never get as far as a REF expert panel. The solution is to have all academics submitted, not just those selected by the institution.

3) It’s unclear. The lack of clarity in the REF has been a gift to those running it and a source of considerable stress to those being processed. Many academics, particularly those at junior and middle levels, are now so demoralised that they dare not speak out. There are rumours that those not ‘returned’ (submitted to the REF) will be taken off research onto teaching-only contracts if they are not REF-returned. There is a strong feeling that any adverse comment could mark you as a troublemaker in the eyes of those with power to ruin your career. University managers and government ministers could state, for the record, that they have no such plans, and that academics are allowed, and expected, to criticise how their universities are run. That is not the message that is currently reaching staff. They don’t know what to think, because the criteria are so vague; and uncertainty breeds fear — which the leadership has largely left to fester. Of course it has. Demoralised academics are far less trouble.

4) It’s burdensome. Staff can also be demoralised by adding to their workload, and the REF has done this too.  Those called to assess submissions (which may be papers, or books, four pieces per person) must do the work alongside their ordinary jobs. Universities are even hiring people to help them with their REF submissions. They’re also wasting loads of staff time on REF bureaucracy, further stressing already overworked academics — who fill in the damn forms in what should be their research time, and then risk being punished for not doing enough research!

5) It’s bad for morale. Staff can be demoralised even more by increasing the emphasis on competition. Academia is in part competitive, but the traditional model was inter-institutional competition (think the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race!). Institutions which looked after their own fostered a collegiate culture which allowed for the development of a ‘critical mass’ of intellectual cooperation. Academics who felt secure enough to share their early ideas with others were able to benefit from their comments, to cross-fertilize ideas, to generate new hypotheses and new collaborations. If every person is out for his or her own career, and forced to compete with the people he also has to work with, that causes intense psychological discomfort. It also reduces creativity. Years after science discovered that competition isn’t what life’s all about after all, university management is still stuck in the 1980s. The REF encourages game-playing. Universities are now hiring science writers to help craft their impact case studies. That money could be going on better teaching provision.

6) It’s short-sighted. Finally, there’s the obvious point that excellence doesn’t spring from a void. Like a sought-after orchid, it needs an entire ecosystem to flourish. Keep picking the flowers, moreover, and the number of orchids will drop. The REF’s focus on excellence, so appealing in principle, is not so clever in practice, because it risks creating an academic wasteland. Healthy ecosystems, of course, have weeds and other apparently useless plants. Weeding out useless academics is a popular goal, but using the REF to do this is like weeding a garden with a JCB. Weeding by hand, however, would demand a lot of time, skill and effort from university management.

In all of this, the REF reminds me, in a mild way, of the techniques of ‘thought reform’ used by the Chinese Maoists to subjugate political dissenters. They set people against each other, constantly reviewing and criticising them, and forcing them to criticise each other. Hard, mind-numbingly tedious work also helped wear the dissidents down, as did the fear and uncertainty in which they were kept. The thought reformers knew that unspecified threats of punishment can be more effective than actually listing consequences, and they were careful to leave their criteria for good and bad behaviour vague and flexible. Interminable discussions of ideology were coupled with frustrating lack of clarity on the details; one might therefore sin without understanding how. This gave the impression that judgement of who was ideologically correct was essentially arbitrary.

The result was obedience, with or without commitment. People could be brought to kiss the rod that beat them, to praise the ideals that oppressed them, or at least to keep sullenly, fearfully quiet.

Of course, analogy is not identity. Thought reform was conducted in prison camps, and used torture. Academics are free to leave universities, if they don’t mind going on the dole (jobs are scarce, and speaking out against university management is unlikely to make them less scarce). As for hiking workloads, imposing arbitrary bureaucratic burdens which shrink research time, taking away the sense of having any control over teaching or admin, and making staff feel that they are at the bottom of the status heap, these techniques may do psychological harm, but they’re not torture.

But nor are they a sensible way to run higher education. The gains in efficiency are short-term, and largely illusory. They seem desirable because the government’s research funds are not handed out by the same people who are paying even for the teaching budget, let alone for the sick leave of overstretched academics. Nor are today’s votes significantly affected by future reductions in academic creativity.

The REF is pernicious and deeply flawed. Many people have pointed out the problems — yet it’s going ahead. When that happens, it’s time to start asking cui bono? Is the continued existence of the REF just down to inertia in the system, or might those flaws be there for good political reasons?

So who does stand to benefit from the REF? Academics? The most senior ones, perhaps, in the most highly-regarded subjects. But not the rest.

The advantages for government and management, however, are obvious. They can claim to be pursuing efficiency and excellence and put the blame for any future failures in research on universities. They also lessen the chances of a revolt among academic staff by the time-tried tactics of divide-and-rule, distraction, and exhaustion. And they save money by making those same academics do most of the work.

Seen from this angle, the REF starts to look like rather a good thing. Could that be why we still have it?

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