How wacky is academia?

Dear colleagues,

If you talk with academics, before long you will hear complaints that soon become familiar. They say they are overworked, faced with unrealistic expectations for teaching, research and administration. They complain that they are endlessly busy on trivial matters, with student emails and petty bureaucratic demands weighing them down, preventing them from getting to really important work - research.  

Academics who have been around for a while might also say standards are declining. They say universities have been taken over by administrators, with managers making decisions on what used to be academic matters such as workloads, study leave, curriculum and subject offerings.

Surveys show that a surprising proportion of academics would like to leave, either to go to another university or to retire. The bad news is this: going to another Australian uni is unlikely to help, because the same problems are found across the country.

This is the message of Whackademia, a new book by Richard Hil. If you want a sense of thinking and attitudes of academics across Australia, especially arts academics, this is the easiest and most pleasant way to get it. Hil interviewed some 60 academics from many different unis, and intersperses his text with numerous quotes. The patterns are so consistent you would swear they are talking about your own unit.

Whackademia, short for wacky academia, has humorous elements, but for the most part it is deadly serious. Things are going downhill for academics - at least they think so - and few have much idea of what to do about it.

As well as complaints about being overburdened and micromanaged, there is another major theme that is less self-centred. Academics see the university as losing whatever commitment it once had to scholarship in the public good. Instead, it is seen as a factory for producing job-ready graduates (though not achieving this very well) and serving paymasters for industry-relevant research.

A telling comment is that bean-counters want to know how many publications you've produced, and at what quality rating, but have little or no interest in the content of the publications. It seems that it wouldn't matter whether you are studying the meaning of life or the colour of dirty dishwater - it's all the same for publication purposes.

Hil attributes the transformation of unis to neoliberalism, the ideology of unfettered markets. I'm not fully convinced, because the Australian government has been increasing controls over unis. The higher education market is highly constrained, with very little choice for anything unconventional. The convergence to a top-down managerial approach can also be explained by the process of bureaucratisation, namely movement towards systems characterised by hierarchy and a division of labour.

Decades ago, academics had more say over decisions about hiring, curriculum and research priorities. This was a system of professional privilege, which has gradually been subordinated to bureaucratic imperatives.

Hil refers to surveys showing greater job satisfaction among non-academic staff. There is one question he didn't ask his interviewees. If academic work is so taxing, why don't more academics choose to take non-academic uni jobs? Maybe a job as a librarian or cleaner would be more satisfying.

Academics used to have some degree of collective control over their work, though the old days were oppressive in a number of ways, including male domination, insider privilege and resistance to innovation. Rather than seek liberation for just academics, a bolder aim would be a wider scope of democratisation, including students as well as both non-academic and academic staff.

Hil is certainly right that neoliberalism - or whatever you want to call the opening of economies to global competition - is increasing demands on many workers. However, this is happening to an equal or greater degree outside universities. It is a curious phenomenon that people are working harder, earning more and enjoying it less.

Finally, there is the question of resistance. Hil gives a long list of possible tactics, from the subtle to the brave, as well as the absurd, and ends with an inspiring call to action. However, it's possible that the most subversive actions are elsewhere, in the public arena of open access learning and open source production projects. Popularisation and open-access learning materials are threats to monopolies of knowledge and credentialing.

Meanwhile, read Whackademia and be up to date with everything wrong with academia.

13 December 2012

Thanks to Trent Brown and Scott Burrows for helpful comments on a draft.


Richard Hil, Whackademia: An Insider's Account of the Troubled University (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2012)

"... university managers can be ever-so-slightly sensitive about any threat to the corporate image, especially if this jeopardises the university's public profile and therefore its ability to attract student-shoppers. So, the brand has to be protected, and one way of doing this is to ensure that academics are prevented from speaking out on anything beyond their immediate area of 'expertise' and 'specialisation'." (p. 68)

"As exhausting as teaching responsibilities can be, most academics I spoke to expressed the greatest angst over the emergence of standardisation - the practice of seeking consistency in the form and content of teaching-related practices. Standardisation has been vigorously applied by bureaucrats to all aspects of teaching activity. There are many examples, but the one that immediately comes to mind, and which above all reflects the bureaucratic impulse to standardise everything, is the unit information guide." (p. 111)

"The majority [of students] take unit guides for what they are - examples of institutional pedantry and information overload. Clearly, there is an inverse relationship between the effort put into producing unit guides and the time allocated by students to reading them, but this is the last thing the pedants in teaching and learning would want academics to know." (p. 113)

"... for most academics, money for research is as scarce as hen's teeth. And even if you are lucky enough to obtain a grant, there may not be the time to do the actual research. As one senior social scientist in Queensland observed: 'I got an ARC research grant a few years back and it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I just couldn't get to the work. There were so many other things to do. It was a nightmare'." (p. 145)

As social work academic Max Travers from the University of Tasmania observes: 'the fact that we have established a system in which where you publish is more important than what you publish seems to reinforce the tendency to produce uninteresting work'." (p. 154)

"Academics get especially miffed when administrators comment on substantive matters relating to course/unit design and content, the appointment of casual staff, conference attendance, study leave, media comment, workload and grade distributions." (p. 180)

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