Why we'd all miss collegiality

In a new globalised academy, scholars still want to rub along together, Matthew Reisz hears in Berlin

September 6, 2012

The changing nature of "collegiality", "protected spaces" for young researchers and the trend towards international academic cultures were all up for debate at the Higher Education and Social Change (EuroHESC) Final Conference in Berlin last week.

Kerstin Sahlin, deputy vice-chancellor of Uppsala University in Sweden, told the conference that "universities are increasingly seen as institutions just like any others to which the same general principles of governance and management can be applied".

She warned that "the culture of collegiality is very much under threat", adding that "we need to define more clearly what we mean by 'collegiality'".

Other speakers analysed what the European higher education reforms sometimes grouped together under the label of "new public management" actually mean for individuals and institutions.

The conference represented the formal conclusion of four major three-year research projects, supported by the European Science Foundation, to examine the transformation of European universities, the current state of the academic profession, the significance of networks within "knowledge societies" and the structures likely to promote scientific innovation.

Together the projects cost €4.4 million (£3.5 million) and brought together more than 90 researchers from 16 countries.

Richard Whitley, professor of organisational sociology at Manchester Business School, reflected on the structural factors that enable scientists to go beyond "puzzle solving" - "incremental innovations within established intellectual trajectories" - and to adopt genuinely groundbreaking approaches.

Professor Whitley pointed to "the amount of 'protected space'" given to up-and-coming researchers and "the flexibility of standards governing the allocation of resources and reputations".

Recent reforms to public science systems, he concluded, were a mixed blessing, since they were likely to "reduce protected space, at least for senior scientists, while potentially increasing flexibility by reducing the control of established disciplinary elites over careers".

David Campbell and Elke Park from the University of Klagenfurt in Austria presented evidence that countries such as Ireland and the UK, where academic staff reported high levels of "top-down management decision-making (amplified by a lack of collegiality) and increased pressure of raising external funds", also offered relatively low levels of job satisfaction.

Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the University of London's Institute of Education, offered what he described as "a necessary corrective to the standard discourse of decline and fall, of the irresistible rise of managerial power in modern higher education systems and the inevitable and corresponding erosion of the authority and autonomy of individual teachers and researchers".

Sir Peter suggested that "the real story" of the UK's much-criticised research audits "is...just how distributed [high-quality] research is"

It could even be argued, he said, that "formal systems of research assessment, exclusively or largely based on peer review, strengthen and entrench [academic] authority by making it fairer and more transparent".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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