Is there no room left for reflection?

September 14, 2007

'Research' and 'scholarship' are not the same thing, says Frank Furedi. Funding-council culture has seriously devalued the latter.

Scholars do not work to a formal job specification. They do not republish the same piece of research 16 times in slightly altered versions to enhance the size of their CV. Nor do they write to schedules set by auditing authorities. Sometimes they obsessively pursue intellectual goals that are of no concern to research councils or other funding bodies. Consequently, they are less than passionate about applying for grants tied to agendas not their own. Even if they go through the motions of showing interest in research council "priorities", their lack of enthusiasm for walking the walk will give them away. They are, after all, scholars - and they are barely tolerated in British higher education.

In the debate about research versus teaching, what is frequently overlooked is the role of scholarship. It is interesting to note that academics are rewarded for their research but not their scholarship: the terms are often used interchangeably, but they have fundamentally different meanings. Research can be a narrow technical function that is hardly different from the work carried out by such non-academic bodies as pollsters, think-tanks and businesses.

Such work may well have value, but it is not scholarship. Often what universities call research assumes the form of an assignment set by a funding authority. This is work that need not be organic to our previous intellectual or scientific pursuits, but a job we do for someone else. Sometimes our own intellectual pursuits and someone else's priorities coincide, but that is often a matter of luck.

The dominance of research led by funding bodies devalues scholars. I have peers who took up positions abroad because they were continually hassled to apply for grants they did not want. They simply needed space to pursue and develop ideas - to think, write and teach.

This devaluation of scholarship is not simply a problem for thwarted academics. It also has a negative impact on the development of ideas. The current focus on research rewards narrow specialisation. Of course specialisation is crucial for scientific thinking, but so is the ability to situate research in a broader context, to transcend disciplines or at least build bridges between them. We need scholars whose vision is not confined by the template of a "guidance to applicants" form.

Ironically, the neglect of scholarship has led to a growing cultural gulf between teacher and student. "Research-led teaching" is often a fiction, since many research projects are stand-alone initiatives with little direct relevance for teaching undergraduates. Lecturers often lead very compartmentalised lives and find it hard to establish a dynamic relationship between teaching and research. In such circumstances, teaching can become a merely technical function since it has only a tangential relationship to our research.

This is where we pay a heavy price for the devaluation of scholarship. Scholars are drawn to teaching partly because they recognise that one of the ways they can pursue ideas is through the quality of relationships they cultivate with students. They believe they have something important to say and regard students as integral to their intellectual life. They often have few "generic" teaching skills, but on a good day they don't just teach but inspire and motivate.

Is there room for scholars in a world where academics are judged on research, teaching and administration?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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