Academics are nothing if not totally absorbed in their work, be it research, teaching, or ideally, both. Historically, universities provided a nurturing environment for these dedicated people, offering room, board and a modest salary while largely leaving them alone to think their great thoughts and instruct the next generation of geniuses (as well as common mortals). By all reports this system worked quite well, and many of the world's greatest minds were fostered in the classic European universities and colleges of the last millennium.
A key to the success of this system of learning was mutual trust — trust that the system would continue to offer unmeddlesome support, and trust that the scholars would remain fascinated by their work and would therefore continue to do it without too much prompting. College life led to collegiality (although not etymologically) in which scholars shared the responsibility for making the system work. The financial independence of many old institutions meant fellows were free to focus their administrative thoughts on academic issues, and heads of colleges were chosen for their scholastic skills rather than their business acumen.
Today, however, things are very different and the word academia is decreasingly applicable to a university system whose fundamentals are based on competition — competition for people, competition for recognition, but primarily and at every turn, competition for money. It is telling that the Macleans Canadian universities' rankings assess research quality only by measuring proxies such as competitive awards to faculty, and the dollar-value of grants. There is more to academia than this.
I was fortunate to receive my undergraduate training in the early 1980s at Cambridge University in the U.K., and my fondest recollections — and probably my most formative experiences — involved personal interactions with some of the greatest scientists in their fields. As an undergraduate, I had a college tutor and faculty supervisors who took a personal interest in my education, and I still have handwritten letters of congratulation from several of these people from when I graduated.
Today it is cause for comment when a professor even knows the names of all his or her students. And yet here in Canada we are not as far down this road to academic devaluation as in some other countries. In between a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan and my present position at the university of Alberta, I spent five years as a lecturer at a provincial university in the U.K. There I experienced a world of unbridled bureaucracy in which I was not even trusted to set and mark my own exams for fear I might commit some unspecified impropriety. Exam papers were sent out for review by external examiners, and all final exams were double-marked blind by the lecturer and another faculty member.
The Macleans competition to which we are all in thrall in Canada is benign compared to the U.K.'s government-ordered rankings of universities and departments for teaching and research excellence. Future funding for these activities at both university and department levels is directly based on the results of these dubiously objective surveys, with the result that it is almost impossible to recover from a bad ranking because resources that would be needed for improvements are actually reduced.
This system was introduced when the government of the time mooted, but never officially implemented, a two-tier policy for the British university system, in which a few elite universities would receive the lion's share of funding for research, and the large remainder would focus on teaching. Because my university was clearly never going to be welcomed to the elite, I did what many other people who valued their research careers did — I left, thereby helping to fulfill the government's unlegislated intentions.
In returning to a faculty position in Canada, I recognized an opportunity to refocus my academic career on the core values that make it worthwhile — the mandate to pursue and disseminate knowledge for its own sake. What concerns me, however, is that I am beginning to see even these greener Canadian pastures beginning to suffer from poor husbanding and overgrazing. Two factors seem to be at work: the commercialization of universities and their product (knowledge), and the expansions demanded by governments which at the same time were cutting budgets for higher education.
In the U.K., the drive to massively increase university enrolments in the late 1980s and 1990s was in part intended as a solution to youth unemployment, and the stick used for this drive was the "full-time student equivalent." Each FTSE was worth several thousand dollars to the university and if you fell short of your allotted intake target your annual budget was cut by that amount. Amazingly, if you were over the target you were also penalized! Failing students was not an option at exam time, not because the word "fail" was politically incorrect, but because one couldn't afford to lose the FTSEs. Here in Canada, the situation is not so dire, but the spur to growth with decreasing resources, and the increasing divestment of government responsibility for higher education, is leading in the same downward direction.
What has gone wrong? The answer is simple: the mutual trust that preserved academia in the past has been lost. Universities and governments can no longer be trusted to provide unmeddlesome support, and universities and governments no longer trust their scholars to perform to the best of their ability. The result is a breakdown of collegiality at all levels in the university system — a loss of shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect. The division is particularly acute between faculty and administration in which the situation is dominantly adversarial or dictatorial at best.
In addition, the withdrawal of government funding forces both university administrators as well as faculty to sell their research to industry and their teaching to students. This commercialization inevitably brings with it the expectations of the marketplace: instant gratification in the form of solutions to immediate problems for industry and teaching evaluations that amount to popularity contests and do not assess whether students have actually learned anything.
Consequently, "blue-skies" research that might solve the next decade's problems, often in quite unforeseen ways, is judged to provide no immediate return on investment and is therefore not funded. Instead, large amounts of money are available for "problem solving," which is merely the application of research. In my naïveté, I would have thought this was the remit of industry, not taxpayer-supported academia.
Why have academics allowed their institutions to be hijacked in this way? After all, without academics, universities would not exist and administrators would be looking for work elsewhere. Therefore, we must have allowed this to occur, whether actively or passively.
Are we really dealing with an irresistible force, or is it just that we still cling fondly to the old concept of academia in which, if we keep our heads down, we'll be left alone to get on with what we love to do, pursue and teach knowledge?
Or is it that the destruction of collegiality has been so complete that we don't even trust and respect each other anymore, let alone share responsibility for the unbiased, unbought pursuit of knowledge?
I suggest that whatever the reason, the solution is in our hands, and it is our responsibility to ensure that academia preserves its independent and collegial spirit. Key issues that should be addressed collectively by university faculty include: the criteria used for performance evaluation (measures such as publications output and anonymous student evaluations ignore quality of research and teaching); the increasing pressure to conduct contractually funded research and to commercialize research products; the commercialization of the classroom; and, the corporate transmogrification of university administration.
Jeremy Richards is associate professor of economic geology at the University of Alberta.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.