From Where I Sit - Procrustean measures

June 21, 2012

The University of Sydney's "underperforming staff" redeployment fiasco, which has unravelled over the past six months, is the latest in a series of rationalisations and narrow-minded governance that continues to drain the intellectual reservoir of universities across the globe.

Over the past decade, we have shut down or drastically depleted many humanities departments. Last year, the Australian Research Council released the infamous Excellence in Research for Australia journal rankings that so poorly reflected the breadth of expert knowledge remaining in the sector. Now staff are "demoted", figuratively if not financially, in one of our premier universities for not satisfying yet another single-minded metric.

Such measures may be trying to tell academics something: "You are paid to research and you are not researching enough." Yet every scholar will surely attest that the measure of their worth is more complex than that. If you have a grant and a bevy of students to research it, the academic's role is multifaceted - a seller of knowledge to the granting body, administrator, researcher, but above all a teacher. How else might all those postgraduates learn what it means to be a researcher? And then there is undergraduate teaching - how else do we as active researchers close the circle between our cutting-edge research, the revision of knowledge this entails, and imparting that knowledge to our most promising students?

If an academic doesn't publish a paper, supervise a postgraduate to completion and bring in a high level of research funding, are they not researching enough? What if they are promoting the internationalisation of their work, serving on university committees, writing books that will influence vast audiences, and developing commercial aspects of their research? What if they have a low postgraduate load, work in a research area that doesn't require much funding, yet undertake significant research themselves that takes several years to bear fruit, all the while passionately and skilfully imparting their knowledge to undergraduates? Is this not enough research? Are our governors yearning so earnestly for universities to function as businesses and earn higher international rankings that they are willing to so grossly misrepresent the multifaceted nature of our work and undermine the university's benefits to humanity?

We might be well served, in view of such a business model, to recall the words of English educator Alfred North Whitehead, who revolutionised mathematics in research partnership with his student, Bertrand Russell. Eighty-five years ago, Whitehead maintained: "A university is imaginative or it is nothing - at least nothing useful." Today, universities remain the last bastion of free thought and expression of ideas - this must be protected.

As I cast an eye around the academic environs of the Queensland University of Technology, I see no one with a spare moment. I see a wealth of research output in a range of arenas, from well to poorly funded, performed by academics energetically supervising a few students to those spread thin, administrating hordes to completion. I see a diversity of expertise in research taught enthusiastically by experienced and inexperienced researchers to a host of fascinated undergraduates at all levels of study. I see research delivered via a range of vehicles to a needy public - popular science, books and outreach - and to our peers via journal literature. I see all this and more. Yet if Sydney's research performance metric were applied to my workplace tomorrow, how many academics would be denied research support and effectively isolated from their colleagues by such blinkered governance?

The answer, even if one, is too many - and in the years to come, I fear we may have ample opportunity to count the cost.

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