First principles define the 'good' academic

October 1, 2009

Having seen the recent correspondence regarding the administration costs attributed to academic independence, I felt compelled to respond ("Running battles on the governance front line", Letters, 17 September).

It seems that "good" doctors and "good" academics may be regarded as "professionals" only if they conform to and co-operate with a managerial agenda self-evidently linked, one assumes, to the greater good. In making efficiency the presiding value, doctors may be forgiven for thinking of patients as just another variable, and academics may be rewarded for making a decent profit margin while keeping quiet.

It is no surprise that during a recession and its consequent cuts, the debate about the role of the university is intensifying. Can the sector follow Enlightenment principles as a compass through these turbulent times, or are they to be abandoned in favour of the university as an instrumental agent of commerce, efficiency and economic growth? Our answers will determine the "good" academic.

If Enlightenment principles still have legitimacy, we may accept that knowledge production and the betterment of society will be enabled by academics within a space that fosters curiosity, challenge and responsibility. On the other hand, if we see the university primarily as an agent for economic growth and efficiency, then academic autonomy could indeed be the source of much inefficiency and managerial frustration.

If we want to get the best from our academics, we must value them more and control them less. While this runs counter to prevailing managerial wisdom, it accepts the strengths of the academic community and recognises that attempts to control it will breed greater resistance. This is not to say that boundaries, responsibilities and accountabilities should not be agreed, but they should be based on respect for the curiosity and diversity that are the essential elements of academic life.

As funding tightens and the "need" for greater government control intensifies, the potential for adversarial relationships increases. Far from harvesting the golden eggs, we run the risk of killing the goose that might lay them.

As a non-academic who works with universities, a "good" academic might be one who helps to produce a cancer-beating drug, provides the basis for the next transformative technological breakthrough, challenges political narratives or inspires my children to become more curious about the world. We should problematise less and engage more.

Richard Sharpe, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

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