An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University
by Richard Hil
Reviewed: 7 July 2012
The relations between a university and its host community can not be taken for granted.
Where universities are funded by taxation, the priorities of the university can reflect the politics of the state. Australia has a colonial heritage of state monopoly of everything. Our major political parties offer a restricted choice between egalitarian or “aspirational” agenda. In these circumstances, it is hard to sustain the idea of an academic community detached from politics.
Academics are assumed to enjoy an enviable lifestyle, and do not usually attract sympathy. But Richard Hil is no silver-spoon elitist bemoaning loss of privilege in the groves of Academe. He comes from a working-class English background, didn’t shine at his local school, but later surprised family and peers by clambering into a 25-year career teaching and researching sociology in British and Australian universities. He makes a compelling case that the intrusive administrative demands of today’s universities drive highly-motivated academics to despair, resignation, or mute repression, in a “Whackademia” dominated by glib managerialism.
Tax-funded budgets, nominally for teaching, are leeched away into burgeoning university bureaucracies obsessed with marketing, grant-hunting, and incessant rounds of accountability process.
Of course accountability is necessary when significant public funds are being spent. But is it efficient use of such funds to make salaried academics devote thirty percent of their time to writing applications (mostly unsuccessful) for research grants, and countless more hours filling in university-generated forms and sitting in committees for dubious “performance management” schemes that purport to measure the immeasurable?
Hil and his many interviewees describe levels of reporting and scrutiny that oblige academics to bend their expensively-trained minds to gaming the system for sheer personal survival, rather than to the high-level education and research for which they are employed. This syndrome may ring a bell with senior public servants.
Few of Hil’s interviewees had any faith in the accuracy of the bureaucratic measures by which their careers and future opportunities were being determined. Patronage, favouritism, rivalry and revenge were assumed to be at least as significant for a person’s rating as any documented criteria. Academic politics has been well recorded since at least Socrates. Formalized assessment processes have introduced a semblance of transparency that is often illusory, but at a huge fiscal and personal detriment to the academics themselves, to their students, and ultimately to the nation’s intellectual capital.
Hil traces the rot back to the Dawkins reforms to Australian higher education in the 1980s. A massive increase in the number and scope of universities changed both the nature and the economics of tertiary education. Full state funding was not sustainable, and market-based business models became inevitable. Students who are accumulating large HECS debts, or paying full fees, have become anxious “customers” who demand the marks they think they have paid for. Where universities are obliged to seek student feedback on individual academic teachers, the customers-students do not hesitate to complain that a course, or a teacher, is “too hard”. Standards suffer, and reputations decline.
University leaders, from Vice-Chancellors down, have been forced to become brand managers focussed on competitive ratings and arcane measures of research performance, because these dubious criteria determine the flow of funds to their institution.
Increased automation of clerical work has actually shifted the load to academics, who are now expected to complete many teaching-related administrative tasks themselves, and in their own time because their contracted “workload” does not reflect actual time needed. At the same time, administrative staff and senior executive numbers have increased enormously and in some institutions outnumber the academics. As Hil sees it, the expanded roles have less to do with supporting the academics and more to do with hounding them with endless surveys, forms, and demands for data.
In the research domain, there is a cycle that ought to be virtuous but for most academics is more often vicious. To be promoted, you must publish. To publish, you must research. But as a junior academic, your time for research may be limited. A standard “workload formula” is supposed to allow 30% of a salaried lecturer’s time for research outside teaching-related duties, but Hil’s sources say it is usually less than half that.
The government-sponsored system for evaluating research gives different weights to publications in journals that are considered more or less prestigious. As a result, the handful of top-rated journals in any field are overwhelmed with submissions. Even excellent work may take years to find a publication, by which time the author may have missed several promotion opportunities or abandoned the profession.
National schemes for “rewarding excellence” in either teaching or research, make good photo-opportunities for ministers, but are regarded with a certain cynicism by the mass of academics. Barely keeping up with their teaching load, they consider themselves to live in a parallel universe to the picture of university excellence publicized from the top.
According the Hil’s research, casual lecturers on short-term contracts provide more than half of all teaching hours in Australian universities. Most of these are women in their thirties with doctoral degrees and no job security.
It’s apparent that Richard Hil could have been a thorn in the side of his university administrators and academic superiors. He tries to suggest positive action that academics might take to recover their ideals, but most of his dot-points amount to forms of sardonic passive resistance. He who pays the piper calls the tune. But for Hil, the neo-liberal managerialist economic project is a disaster for all of society, not just Whackademia.
We are left pondering how the global demand for vocational credentials, at competitive market rates, can be met by the same institutions that we might fund to foster thoughtful long-term contributors to our national cultural and scientific capital, with no immediately measurable market value. This used to be the ideal of the University.
Richard Thwaites has observed the torment of senior academics begging for research funds, and the dilemmas of committed young academics living on the smell of hope.