Researchers need to strike a new grand bargain with governments to cut back academic bureaucracy in order to free up time for the social and economic engagement increasingly demanded of universities by states, the president of the European University Association has argued.
Rolf Tarrach was speaking at the organisation’s annual conference in Zurich, which was dominated by sometimes anxious debate about universities’ role in society, the erosion of their public legitimacy and outright threats to academic freedom from governments.
“If we want to do more things for society, we can’t do it by working more than 60 or 70 hours a week – and therefore we have to regain some of our free time,” Professor Tarrach, the former rector of the University of Luxembourg, told delegates at the University of Zurich.
“And there’s only one place where logically we would like to get free time, and that is cutting down...bureaucracy,” he argued. “And for that we need to build up trust. And once we build up trust, we can ask our governments and the European Commission. Trust us – give us more free time, control us less, and then we promise...that free time will then be given to our work with society.”
Professor Tarrach is the latest senior European figure to question whether accountability measures in academia have gone well past an efficient or reasonable level. In March, Marc Schiltz, the president of Science Europe, suggested that funders experiment with lottery or basic income systems for researchers to cut grant application bureaucracy.
Delegates were also warned that overpromising about the impact of research had got out of hand. Ulrike Felt, dean of the social sciences faculty at the University of Vienna, said that overly confident claims made by researchers to funders or the public about the impact of their work should even be seen as a matter of research ethics.
There was an “economy of promise”, which led academics to “imagine and promise all kinds of short-term gains” from research, she said.
“We know all too well from the war on cancer, which we [have been] fight[ing] since [the] 1970s, and which is re-imagined every couple of years,” she added.
“I’ve been a reviewer for the ERC [European Research Council] for many years,” she said during a question and answer session. “You can’t imagine what people promise.”
As a reviewer, she said that she had even contemplated drawing up a blacklist of the most unrealistic promises in grant applications. Applicants claiming that they were “the most outstanding researcher of my generation” was not uncommon, she said – a boast not heard three to four decades ago. Competition between academics pushed them to make such overblown claims, she warned.