Remote working ‘boosting managerialism’ in academia

Move online may have been green but could damage impactful research, THE’s UK Academic Salon hears

May 12, 2021
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The move to remote working has helped universities “accelerate” managerialism and increased time pressure on academics despite the environmental gains, a professor has claimed.

Paul Bates, professor of hydrology at the University of Bristol, said that the pace of academic life had rapidly increased during the pandemic and was squeezing the time needed to produce ground-breaking and impactful research.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s UK Academic Salon on universities’ role in tackling the climate crisis, Professor Bates said that the switch to online meetings and cut in international travel had forced environmentally beneficial changes that might have taken “years, if not decades” to achieve otherwise.

“The downside to…working online is I think the pace of academic life has sped up an awful lot. I think people are under quite a lot of pressure. There’s no downtime between meetings and emails, and just the whole pace of activity has ramped up,” he said.

“In disconnecting people physically, that’s helped universities accelerate a process of being more managerialist and more centralised and…more bureaucracy-driven. And nobody is really taking control or having an overview of what time pressures we’re putting our academics under.”

Professor Bates, who is also associate director of impact and innovation at Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, added that online working meant “we’ve got something that’s lower carbon but I’m not necessarily sure that it’s turned out to be better for our work-life balance. It’s probably worse.”

Alyssa Gilbert, director of policy and translation at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, told the session that universities were becoming better at collaborating with policymakers in areas such as climate change.

But given the increasing pressures in academia, she called for a “better way of recognising the time that academics spend on this kind of activity” through the use of promotion criteria and funding.

“The impact agenda needs to have a value on it and that’s either set by the institution or else helped by the funding framework, so if that is something that people want to get engaged in can spend their time on it,” she said.

Meanwhile, the session – titled “Roadmap to COP26: How do we solve our next global crisis?” – also heard how UK universities should “grasp the opportunity” of the country hosting the United Nations climate change conference later this year to push the case for research investment.

“It is too easy to fall into a trap and believe that the solutions…and the expertise that we’ll need to tackle climate change and all of its consequences can suddenly materialise on demand as a result of isolated initiatives or policy decisions,” said Chris Pearce, vice-principal of research at the University of Glasgow, based in the same city where COP26 will be held.

“Sustained investment in academic research should not be seen as a compromise at a time of fiscal challenge. A strong research base [and] strong academic disciplines that then underpin strategic R&D programmes for tackling climate change are all part of the solution for driving economic recovery.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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