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Mediocrity and laziness in our universities

By Tara Brabazon - posted Thursday, 27 October 2005


University teaching is a special job. Each day, an extraordinary event or experience juts from the banal rhythms of administration and answering emails. Students in these ruthless times want to feel something - anything - beyond repetitive and pointless casualised work and the selection of mobile phone ring tones. In such a time, students grasp and follow any curriculum or person that makes them feel more than a number and more than labour fodder for fast food outlets.

I believe in these students. I need to believe that the future they create will be better than the intellectual shambles we have bequeathed them. We can spin and spruik the knowledge economy, creative industries, the clever country and the smart state, but without attention to education these empty phrases are not filled with content, meaning or context.

In 2002, in a mood of dejection, I wrote about teaching. Digital Hemlock was filled with angry prose, snarling at the economic decisions and choices made by our universities, prioritising technology over people and applications over ideas. The response to this book from readers was immediate, powerful and embracing. Three years later, it is time to write again. With optimism and hope, I offer three strategies to address the increasingly corrosive mediocrity of Australian universities.

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University academics have much in common with our colleagues in primary and high schools, but there is one pivotal difference. Academics at universities must research as well as teach. We not only discuss established knowledge and ideas, but develop new knowledge and ideas.

As vocational skills and competencies have been introduced into universities, the value and importance of academics holding a PhD has declined. Too many staff are employed on the basis of “experience” not “expertise”. Professional experience has replaced scholarship. But that is not the case. A PhD is the academic equivalent of a tradesman’s apprenticeship. Without a doctorate, there is no way to ascertain if a staff member is producing (or teaching) scholarship of international quality as assessed by elite scholars in the field.

My first challenge to Australian academics is to repopulate our universities with post-doctoral scholars. No doctorate - no job, and certainly no tenure. Without this intervention, academics are becoming less qualified than our best students.

My second challenge to Australian academics is even more unpopular. As I write these words, advocate organisations around the country are concerned that academic freedom is being lost in a desire to regulate and monitor Australian research. Actually, I am in favour of regulating research. In the last five years, particularly in some disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, citation rates of our work have declined. Less research is judged as internationally relevant.

Right now, the acceptable regulator of our research is the market. This is the problem that dares not speak its name. If Apple funds research on the I-Pod, or Westpac finances research on the Australian property market, then the results of this research may be skewed. Even more importantly, they may be seen to be skewed.

UK universities operate under a Research Assessment Exercise, an RAE. Every six years, departments submit four pieces of research from their best scholars. These pieces are assessed by a panel of prominent scholars in a field and a grading given. Funding is distributed on the basis of that grading. Obviously there are controversies encircling such a scheme, but since it was introduced the international level of citation of UK scholars has increased. Staff are focused on research productivity and the importance of writing and discovery.

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No such process exists in Australia. There remains an easy acceptance of funding distributed from the Australian Research Council on the basis of a research proposal. Because the funding is given for prospective research rather than actual research outcomes, the results have been mixed.

The situation has become so strange in Australia that I have been reminded on numerous occasions in the last few years that “books don’t matter”. There is a reason for the emergence of such a destructive culture. When teaching workloads are calculated at universities, there is little recognition of research. An academic who has written no articles or books is given the same teaching load as those who are research active. There is no motivation or reason to conduct research in Australia except to obtain money for a grant.

In the name of “academic freedom” or “teaching quality” or “getting grants”, we have disconnected from the international research community. But books do matter. Refereed articles do matter. We have created and embraced a culture of equivalence, not a culture of excellence. Journalism is not equivalent to scholarship. Textbooks, with bullet points in tow, are not equal to a scholarly book that moves the frontiers of knowledge.

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About the Author

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

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