'Community of scholars' crumbling

July 28, 2006

The "community of scholars" in higher education is under threat because changes imposed by policy-makers and university managers have left academics with an identity crisis, researchers argued this week.

Rapid growth in student numbers, quality assurance requirements and government pressure to widen participation and better prepare students for the workplace have taken their toll on academics' sense of their role and being part of a community.

Researchers who submitted papers to a Society for Research into Higher Education conference at Lancaster University this week said that most academics wanted a collegiate environment in which they had the opportunity for deep reflection and to discuss and develop ideas with colleagues. But such environments had become the preserve of small tight-knit disciplines and elite institutions, they suggested.

According to William Fisher, assistant director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Hertfordshire University, performance measures have masked the erosion of this ideal.

A paper Mr Fisher asks whether there is an identity crisis in higher education and suggests that academics cling to an idealised view of what a university should be in the face of productivity demands and an increasingly managerial regime.

David Mills, a lecturer in educational studies at Oxford University, said he thought that there were many examples of people "feeling lost" within institutions that did not encourage research communities to develop.

He said: "If you are having to teach twice as many students, the opportunities to sit down and talk have gone. It may be that this is not the deal you thought you were getting into when you started your career as an academic."

Dr Mills said that lessons could be learnt from small disciplines such as anthropology that had maintained a strong, close academic community, despite changes in the sector.

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