What has been happening at Queen Mary, University of London (highlighted here) and at other UK universities, has made me consider what universities are actually for. Stefan Collini has written a book titled What are Universities for? and I should probably read this before writing my own post, but I haven’t and I’ll write something anyway.
Basically, I think universities are places where people carry out research and other scholarly activities and pass on what they (and others) have learned. The research/scholarship should be original and fundamental and should aim to enhance our understanding of the world/universe. We then pass on this knowledge through publishing papers, talking at conferences, engaging with the public and educating students who can then go out and use this knowledge and the associated skills throughout their careers. The impact that universities have is therefore partly through the graduates and partly through the research/scholarship which may have both societal and economic impact (although one would expect it to be medium to long-term impact).
An academic job is also typically assumed to be permanent. The US still has tenure, the UK doesn’t, but academic jobs are still regarded as permanent. There are two reasons for this (I think). We want to attract world-class researchers into jobs that don’t pay huge salaries and so job security does play a role in making the career attractive. The other reason is that academic researchers have typically had, what is called, academic freedom. This is the freedom to, essentially, study/research whatever they would like. I think this is quite important and, without it, we risk the possibility that academics start doing predictable, risk-free research, which won’t have as much impact as the risky research that might result in something completely unexpected (but might also result in nothing). Also, what is the alternative? I don’t have a boss who decides what research I should do. I decide for myself. Sometimes, it turns out to be interesting and worth publishing. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it is important that academics can commit to a project that may not lead to anything without having to worry that they could lose their jobs if the management decide that they’re no longer doing valuable research.
It is now very clear, however, that universities are run as businesses with management teams who need some measure of success. Success is now generally regarded, by the management at least, as how much money the research is able to bring in and where the university sits in various league tables. The next big pot of money will be associated with next year’s Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). This is leading to some universities (Queen Mary, University of London) actually getting rid of a large fraction of the academics in some departments so as to hire new academics who can, supposedly, improve their REF2014 ranking. Firstly, I think this is morally indefensible as these are people who, by all accounts, are doing their jobs. They are being made redundant because the university has introduced some measures of research success that they don’t satisfy. If one could show that these measures are a sensible measure of research quality/success, this may at least make sense, but they almost certainly aren’t. These redundancies may also be, technically, illegal. Redundancies can take place if jobs are no longer needed. Queen Mary is currently advertising for people to take over from those being made redundant. I also think this is a very dangerous thing to do. People decide on academic careers for a number of reasons but job security and freedom to carry out research of your own choosing are certainly important considerations. If these are removed, then it’s quite likely that those with the most potential will simply not choose an academic career.
It’s possible that Queen Mary and the other universities who are replacing staff to improve their REF score will achieve what they want and will indeed move up the REF rankings. In the long-term, however, I think this kind of behaviour will lead to a university system that scores well according to the current metrics but doesn’t actually do anything particularly significant. When everyone realises that the scoring systems is flawed, these universities may suddenly plummet down the rankings when a better way of measuring research quality is introduced. I think this kind of behaviour is potentially extremely damaging to UK Higher Education and this kind of management (as exemplified by Simon Gaskell – principal of Queen Mary) could see the UK Higher Education system losing it’s status very quickly.
I’ll finish with a link to a post about Leaving Academica written by a US academic. I don’t think that the UK system is necessarily as bad as suggested in this post (and I’m certainly not about to leave academia) but it certainly strikes a chord with me and I do worry that we are heading in the kind of direction that this post highlights. You’ll have to read it to see what this is, but I think it is worth a read.