Leader: Academic or jack of all trades?

Knowledge transfer is a valid concept, but it takes time and effort away from the countless other tasks staff already perform

October 1, 2009

Academics research, teach, mark essays, apply for grants, provide pastoral support, do admin and perform countless other associated tasks. In recent times they have also been required to demonstrate economic impact and take part in knowledge-transfer activities, even those working in the arts and humanities. A case of being everything to everyone, as James Ladyman, professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol, points out in our cover feature.

Or, to put it another way, there is a danger that they become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Let's not forget that it is precisely the master's role that they are employed to do.

No one denies that putting knowledge out there is a good thing: after all, most academics do it every day of their lives through their teaching and their publications. But there is a worry that informing a, let's face it, sometimes uninterested and ignorant public, can take a lot of time and effort. What about the day job?

Workloads are already more onerous, as documented previously in these pages. As one poster on our website, who has archived their diaries since 1980, points out: "We all eat lunch at our desks like any stressed-out City trader. I slipped into this habit without realising it, but now I simply can't cope with my workload and can't have an hour for lunch each day, at least not during term-time." That's a bit worrying, isn't it? At least stressed-out City traders are very handsomely rewarded for their nervous breakdowns.

Is there not a danger that it is academe that is trying to be everything to everyone and no one has sat down and worked out what this really means across an institution, let alone across the sector?

At the University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive, director Vanessa Toulmin sells her expertise both to Blackpool Borough Council and to the Health and Safety Executive. In what she calls an "unholy" pact with library management, she uses the money to pay non-staffing expenses and to bring in extra bodies when needed. It wasn't just the need for income generation that brought her to this situation, but also the frustration at being taken advantage of by the media and the commercial sector. They believe, she says, that academics, particularly those in the arts and humanities, "are a soft touch; 'gobs on sticks' who will willingly impart all their knowledge and expertise for nothing".

Some might argue that this knowledge has already been paid for by the taxpayer, so why should it have to be paid for again? But that is to miss the point. It is not the knowledge that has to be paid for but the imparting of it. No one would suggest that a scholar publish their own book for nothing, although of course many in effect do. Nor should they be expected to take part in knowledge transfer without seeing some reward for their efforts beyond that of seeing their research reach a wider audience.

We know knowledge transfer in the arts is valuable: PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that for every £1 spent by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on research, the UK sees £10 in immediate benefits and a further £15-£20 in long-term benefits. If it really is that valuable, universities must make sure that both they and their staff are being properly rewarded for doing it.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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