Is ‘academic citizenship’ under strain?

A wide range of essential under-the-radar tasks sustain academic culture, but who will perform them in an increasingly careerist academy?

January 29, 2015

Source: Corbis

In short, rising individualism is hollowing out departments. There is no doubt in my mind that academic culture is changing in this way

An academic’s work is often described in terms of teaching and research – but talk to anyone working in the profession and they will be quick to point to a host of other roles and functions that are far less well known or understood outside the academy but are nonetheless integral to academic life.

The performance of these “invisible” duties and activities, such as external examining, peer review and mentoring, has been termed “academic citizenship” and, according to Bruce Macfarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong and author of The Academic Citizen: The Virtue of Service in University Life (2007), it is “the glue that keeps academe working”.

“What academics do is too often inadequately bifurcated and oversimplified as ‘teaching and research’,” says Macfarlane, who describes academic citizenship as “the third leg of the stool”. “Without things like mentoring, peer review and various other largely selfless activities the infrastructure of academic life would not last long.”

Yet some academics argue that this third aspect of academic life is coming under increasing pressure in the rush for publications, promotions and research funding.

As the nature of employment in universities changes, there are “fewer and fewer academics on ‘all round’ academic contracts who see academic citizenship as part of their role”, Macfarlane argues. “If we define people as ‘teaching or research’ where does this leave academic citizenship? It needs to be better recognised and rewarded.”

Writing in Times Higher Education in October, Michael Power, professor of accounting at the London School of Economics, discussed “voluntary, often invisible, activity to sustain academic culture for its own sake, which brings benefits to a wider group than oneself or even one’s department” (“To everything there is a measure, and we must hit them all”, Opinion, 30 October 2014). Speaking to THE, Power says that colleagues in the economic sciences increasingly question such work, asking: “What is in my interests?” He adds: “Such individuals were once described to me as ‘Thatcher’s children’. My observation is that more academics see themselves as ‘sole traders’ utilising the university franchise for career development defined solely in terms of research. In short, rising individualism is hollowing out departments. There is no doubt in my mind that academic culture is changing in this way.”

The research excellence framework and increasing student demands in the wake of higher fees mean that “citizenship is being squeezed”, Power says.

But he adds that “despite all this, I know of several colleagues and academics who are determined to ‘do the right thing’ regardless of what they see around them”. He calls them “the heroes and heroines of academic life”.

Chris Rust, emeritus professor of higher education at Oxford Brookes University, agrees that existing career structures often reward those who choose to neglect such work. The emphasis that universities place on the REF means that academics who “keep their head down, just do the research, try and avoid not just the things we’re talking about but even try to get out of as much teaching as they can…actually end up getting rewarded in the process”, he says.

While some of the activities that constitute “academic citizenship” do bring career benefits, are a mark of prestige, or are expected by managers, some low-paid or unpaid forms of work – notably peer review for journals owned by for-profit publishing houses – have been portrayed as unfair or exploitative. Academics have long complained about the rates of pay associated with external examining, for example. Yet Rust has also encountered the opposite view: he once heard the process described as “white-collar piracy” because academics are paid by another institution to work for them during working hours while continuing to draw a regular salary from their main employer.

For Mary Evans, centennial professor at LSE’s Gender Institute, the rewards of fully engaging in these diverse areas of academic life have been personal and political. “For many women of my generation it was very important to construct networks within the academy, hence motivation for ‘citizenship’ was very much about establishing a ‘voice’,” she says, adding that “building friendships through work as a ‘citizen’ is a huge help in limiting that sense of isolation that is part and parcel of being an academic”.

Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick, outlines her “citizenship” workload in the first half of 2015: “I have three PhDs to examine, only one in the UK; an appointing committee overseas; three meetings of projects on whose advisory board I serve; two plenary lectures abroad and a week-long workshop in Italy; plus reviewing for journals, funding bodies, references, etc.”

Given the time burden and the scant financial rewards, why do it all? “Because one of the privileges of being an academic is the opportunity to engage with the younger generation – with younger colleagues, postdocs, students, pupils in schools in your own country and elsewhere – and if you don’t engage with the younger generation, you will quickly fade into oblivion and leave not a wrack behind,” says Bassnett.

“When I die, I don’t give a toss if anyone continues to read my books but I would like to think that there are people somewhere who will remember me for having helped them at some stage in their careers.”

Organising academic conferences and seminars

Conferences play an important role in academia, as the places where people meet to share new research and ideas. Organising one, however, is a serious commitment. While putting on a conference “can be exciting and intellectually rewarding in unique ways, it takes up a huge amount of time”, acknowledges Joanna Lewis, assistant professor in Imperial and African history at LSE. Nonetheless, “conferences are enormously helpful in assisting young academics to raise their profile and build up a research network which in turn can convert into research grant applications and the next big book project”, says Lewis. Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, says “it’s something that most people would see benefits from in the long term”.

For Power, though, there has been a shift in attitude towards such events that reflects changes in the academic mindset. “Some academics want these things counted as part of their contracted load – which changes their status. Once, organising workshops would just be simply what one did as an academic. Now some want to get ‘credit’ for it,” he says.

Man carrying armful of gifts

Once, organising workshops would just be simply what one did as an academic. Now some want to get ‘credit’ for it

External examining

PhD examining is singled out by many as being unrewarding in a financial sense – but the benefits to the wider academic community are obvious. Stephen Mumford, professor of metaphysics and executive dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham, says: “You do a PhD for a derisory fee, it doesn’t at all reflect the amount of work that goes into it. You might have to read 80,000 words and give up a day to attend a viva, and you receive maybe £150. That works on a reciprocal basis. You get underpaid but it’s part of the academic community – it’s basically doing each other a favour.”

Bassnett says there are benefits for the examiner, too: “It is one of the most rewarding experiences of all, as it puts you in contact with brilliant minds from the next generation.”

Of external examining more generally, Rust says that “it’s an enriching experience”. He puts the typical level of pay at £500 plus expenses for what, in his experience, usually amounts to “more than six days’ work”. The course in question gets a “critical friend” while the external examiner gets a sense of the “different ways that other places do things”, Rust says. Evans thinks that the broader benefits for academia flow from the “discussion of what is being taught and how we teach it”.

Evaluating for funding bodies

Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield, admits to having thought “that was a complete waste of time” after sitting on an evaluation panel. He describes the process of applying for and awarding research grants as an “insult to every academic” as the way grants are evaluated is “pretty well random” because of the number of good applications. “There are so many excellent applications you just don’t have the knowledge or time to evaluate everybody properly,” says Birkhead.

There can be a plus side for the reviewer, however. Bishop says that “if you’re reviewing grants and journal articles you might be ahead of the game in seeing new work”. Yet Power argues that “invisible acts of citizenship – such as reviewing and evaluation – decline as academics need to manage their time and careers more carefully”.

Peer review of journal articles and scholarly monographs, or serving on the editorial board of a journal

Reviewing journal articles is a time-consuming business. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, says that “if you’ve done five [journal articles] in a month, you could have done an article yourself and published it” in the same time. “I think a lot of academics will do the cost-benefit analysis and say ‘I can’t be bothered’.”

Power says: “I am not an editor but I feel sorry for those that are and who have to go begging for reviewers in a voluntary economy. The good citizens quickly get overloaded.”

Publishers have been criticised in recent years for expecting academics to review articles for little or no money, only to sell the content back to the higher education sector at escalating prices. “There’s a feeling that something is out of balance and academics are often putting more effort into the system than the rewards they get back,” says Mumford. “We are putting more into that particular arrangement than we get from it.”

Evans says that while journal editors are paid, those serving on editorial boards are unpaid in her experience, although they could pick up benefits such as overseas trips. But being asked to read papers on a board for an international journal is not only “a sign of recognition”, it is “incredibly valuable as a way of educating yourself, learning to work with people from what are very different academic cultures and across Europe and the world”, she says.

Participation in committee meetings and appointment panels

Undertaking administrative and managerial tasks is a duty associated with almost any profession, but have the demands on academics got out of hand?

“We probably have too many committees meeting too often and a lot of people are expected to go to these, and that pushes out a lot of things,” Cooper says.

While such work is unglamorous, Bassnett says the potential benefits to the individuals participating and the wider community should not be underestimated. She recalls how she got on to her university’s senate early in her career to lobby for better childcare, and better working conditions for women.

“It was an eye-opener in helping me to understand the power structures of my own university, and I learned very quickly who to lobby outside my own faculty,” she says.

Sitting on appointment panels is another element of administrative work, and this can involve internal and external, or even international activity. Bassnett says this, too, was an eye-opener – revealing how rigorous some institutions are about appointments, and how “utterly unprofessional” others can be.

Board membership of academic organisations

Serving on the executive or council of academic organisations such as subject associations and research institutes offers lecturers a chance to make the case for their wider discipline, not just their own research area. In the case of some disciplines, it may also offer the opportunity to influence areas of public policy. This is a world that is well known by Cooper, who is chairman of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences, a founding president of the British Academy of Management and the current president of the Institute of Welfare. He says these positions have allowed him to emphasise the role that the social sciences can play in fostering the behavioural change that needs to happen alongside scientific or engineering advances. Board membership of academic organisations is not something that offers additional remuneration, Cooper says, but most people don’t do this for the good of their bank balances or CVs, he argues.

“They are there because they really believe there are things that we do that can make a lot of difference, and they want to tell people about them,” he says.

However, there could be personal benefits, too, particularly for lecturers at the start of their careers, in terms of networking. Cooper points out that “you may make yourself more visible and be offered jobs elsewhere”.

Writing references

The burden of writing references for former students was recently lamented in the pages of THE by Mumford. He warned that academics were caught in the middle of an “arms race” where, although they want to help their graduates, they find themselves being expected to write ever more, and ever lengthier references (“May I recommend”, Opinion, 6 November 2014), estimating that they sometimes made up about 20 per cent of his authored output. “The provision of references can on occasion be of incalculable value to the recipient: just consider the costs of a bad appointment. Yet it seems again that it is the squeezed and undervalued academic that is picking up the tab, through free provision of a service in kind,” he argued, and mooted a move to the American system where graduates are handed a single version of a reference that they are then free to use in all future applications.

Man carrying pile of books

I feel good when someone who I have been mentoring is successful. I feel really proud of that

Curriculum and qualification design

Debra Myhill, professor of education at the University of Exeter, who helps to draw up English specifications for both the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA exam board and the Department for Education, says that taking part in curriculum and qualification design for school-age children can be rewarding. Although the OCR work requires her to travel from the South West to Cambridge, it allows her to meet and work with other academics, teachers and arts groups such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a result, if she needs a statement of support for a grant funding application, she knows to whom she can turn. Given her background in teacher training, it also enables her to stay ahead of curriculum developments. The OCR work is not paid, but travel expenses are covered, and although the government does pay a fixed rate, it is unlikely to cover an academic’s costs.

Myhill says that she is lucky because 10 per cent of her Exeter workload is unallocated, allowing her to pursue activities such as this, and adds that external work is taken into account in performance reviews – although she is clear that it could not be used to make up for poor performance in the core areas of research and teaching. There is also an ethical imperative. “I’m passionate about education and wanting to shape education for the young people of the future,” says Myhill. “Hopefully my expertise and research might have some impact on shaping it.”

For Bassnett, advising on curriculum development allowed her to travel around the developing world, to countries such as Indonesia, China and Colombia. Only travel and subsistence expenses were provided but the experience of meeting people “far outweighed the lack of fees”, she says.

Public engagement and outreach

Birkhead can speak of the benefits of public engagement work more powerfully than most. When, in 2014, public funding for his project monitoring the guillemot population of Skomer Island in Wales was ended after 42 years, he turned to crowdfunding – and soon raised enough to continue the £12,000 annual cost of the survey. He puts a large part of this success down to the effort he put in and the contacts he made while giving talks to enthusiasts over the decades. Engaging with the public can also make academics take a fresh look at their research, and is a way for lecturers to “justify their existence” and their receipt of public funding, says Birkhead. Although he never accepts payment, Birkhead is pleased to see that outreach is now recognised in performance reviews. “In the past I did outreach surreptitiously because it wasn’t viewed as a good thing – ‘if you’ve got time to do it, you’ve got time to do another grant application’,” says Birkhead. “Now it’s great, I feel doing outreach is rewarded by the university.”

Birkhead is one of many academics, however, who fears that increasing pressure on academics will reduce the time available for public engagement, which often takes place at evenings and weekends.

Bishop says that “when we heard that the REF was going to have a section on impact, a lot of people thought this meant public engagement – it really doesn’t”. She says that public engagement “really only counted [in the REF] if you could point to a piece of research that changed people’s behaviour. Going and giving a Skeptics in the Pub talk isn’t going to cut it. It’s something that gets squeezed out.”

When Richard Watermeyer, senior lecturer in higher education studies at the University of Surrey, and Jamie Lewis, a Sage postdoctoral research associate at Cardiff University’s School of Social Sciences, conducted 40 qualitative interviews with early career academics known for their public engagement work, the majority felt that it had harmed their profile as a “proper” research-active academic. The study, presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference in December, also found that a high proportion complained of a lack of interest and reward for public engagement from their institution.

Supporting junior academics and researchers

Mentoring and supporting early career academics is “part and parcel of what a senior person should do”, says Cooper. As well as being invaluable to those beginning an academic career, universities and students benefit from the development of staff. Cooper argues that senior academics benefit from the relationship. “I feel good when someone who I have been mentoring is successful,” he says. “I really feel proud of that.”

However, Cooper adds that it is becoming more difficult to spend time nurturing the careers of junior staff as the “managerial” responsibilities that senior professors undertake increase.

Bishop says that the amount of mentoring taken on by senior academics varies, and points out that some people are far better at it than others. “Mentoring is satisfying because you feel you are bringing on the next generation,” she says. “On the other hand, it takes a lot of time and there are some people you wouldn’t suggest [as mentors] because you know they would be hopeless.”

Pastoral care

There was a time when most academics would have a number of students allocated to them as their tutees, with responsibility for a wide range of guidance and support.

Nowadays, in many universities, the functions once associated with the personal tutor are increasingly taken on by specialists such as student support advisers.

However, many lecturers still go beyond the call of duty to support their students and, significantly, they may now find themselves with responsibility for a much larger number of individuals.

Evans says that the increase in the student population has been accompanied by greater use of part-time staff on insecure contracts in teaching – and she argues that the pastoral burden tends to weigh more heavily on permanent faculty.

Some academics are better at pastoral care than others, and some see it as being more important than others, Evans points out, adding that it is unlikely to be something that is recognised in a lecturer’s performance review.

But Evans says that the simple motivation to do a good deed is enough to make many academics help their students as much as they can.

“It can make academics feel they are making a difference, that they have gone into work and done something which has helped somebody else,” she says.

At the same time, it is often argued that the introduction of higher fees has made students “more demanding”, and that email and the internet have led some to expect a greater level of contact with academic staff and prompt responses to their queries.

“If students are more demanding, it’s of instruction and assistance to make sure they get above that crucial 60 mark,” says Evans.

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Reader's comments (4)

It is interesting that an increase in 'career-ism' is suggested as reason for why these important tasks are being eschewed by increasing numbers of academics. Surely a careerist would be engaging in many of these 'non-performance' -based activities to further their career (e.g. to increase esteem indicators, indirectly improve the quality of one's own research proposals and publications (a significant benefit of being a peer reviewer)? What this really suggests is weak line management and a lack of proper development planning as part of any performance appraisal process so that only performance metrics are focussed on (i.e. number of publications per year, research income, teaching survey scores, etc.). If there was more real engagement with the performance appraisal and personal development processes by academics then these activities can be effectively protected and carried out. Used properly performance appraisals can ensure recognition of staff who do this important work and also ensure that people do do their fair share. Maybe there is more work to do to highlight the benefits of undertaking these tasks and to proper career planning as a route to success.
People err, people wander, when they get blinkered. What the authors of this piece< Morgan and Havergal, fail to see is that academe totally, systematically puts blinkers on all who aspire to tenure or permanence in it. It does this by how, in its departmentalization, all narrow their range of reference, shear themselves of human reference, to conform to each careerist niche. These reduced people are not free souls, not comfortable in wider contexts, or with people who haven't lost their curiosity, openness, or skills in quoting from the wider culture also. Reduced, narrow, damaged, of course they're going to feel besieged, under stress, limited. They are limited. They've made their Faustian bargain. So while no one need pity them, we may all regret the great imaginative and human damage they pass on to students.
Promotions used to be decided on the tripartite basis of research, teaching and 'administration'. In the US, it is possible that 'service' still matters: it is encountered so often in full CVs. Christopher Satterley makes a very good point that appraisal can play an important role in recognition and personal development. The distribution of workloads isn't always effective, as it depends on how conscientiously individuals perform their roles (in relationship to their personal priorities). Appraisal usually doesn't lead to promotion or even 'achievement awards'. The one aspect ignored entirely in the original piece is service in the union, AUT/UCU. Such work is conducted almost entirely in personal time, with a paltry allowance of work time from management. Such service is, however, of paramount importance, not simply in collective bargaining on salaries, other terms and conditions of service, and, as recently, pensions, but personal cases too. Unlike some of the other instances of service (external examining), it receives no remuneration.
If you can't research, teach. If you can't teach, administrate. If you can't administrate just sort of, well, hang around doing bits and bobs and making yourself look as useful as possible. If only the working class could all define themselves 'essential' in this way.