Researchers believe results culture puts quality at risk

Majority of academics fear funding pressures and targets will harm scholarly work. John Gill reports

April 10, 2008

Three in four academics believe that pressure to increase research productivity is a threat to the quality of research, according to a survey of 1,700 UK scholars.

The survey, which is part of an ongoing international study, The Changing Academic Profession, also highlights concerns that UK universities are failing to support academic freedom in an increasingly performance-oriented culture.

Initial findings from the UK side of the study, carried out by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at The Open University, were presented at the Association of University Administrators conference last week.

William Locke, the centre's assistant director, said that changes in the profession had been referred to as the "late industrialisation" of academia. "It could be argued that this transformation is intimately linked with the development of mass higher education and the shift from craft to mass production," he said.

"How far can this go before it irreparably damages the self-motivated, self-regulated academic community that many argue is necessary for scholarly endeavour?"

The survey found that 78 per cent of academics agreed with a statement that "the pressure to raise funds has increased since my first appointment". Three quarters agreed that "high expectations to increase research productivity are a threat to the quality of research".

A majority, 55 per cent, also agreed that high expectations of "useful results and application" are a threat to the quality of research.

Only a third believed that their administration supported academic freedom, a figure that dropped to a quarter in post-1992 and post-2004 universities.

Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at Liverpool Hope University, suggested that the findings were indicative of the "marketisation" of higher education and "a direct consequence of government policy, which is increasingly tying research outcomes to apparent economic relevance".

He said: "The opportunity for academics to pursue their own research choices is being reduced, and even where they retain an element of choice they are increasingly being pushed towards research that will have a more immediate payoff in terms of revenue or prestige.

"Many people would say that universities are increasingly caught between wanting to preserve academic freedom and wanting to make a quick buck. If the people doing the research feel that it's damaging the quality of the research, then that's a clear warning signal to everybody."

The survey also found that less than a quarter of respondents agreed that top-level administrators were providing competent leadership and 72 per cent said that administrative processes at their institution were "cumbersome".

Less than half said that their overall job satisfaction was high or very high, and fewer than one in four had not considered a "major change" of job in the past five years.

The finished study will include data on more than 20 countries.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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