How should the academic community respond to critical public opinion?
Here is a comment from the United States about how the wider public views the academic profession:
‘”Across the country, public education is under siege,” Lisa Vollendorf, chair of the Romance, German and Russian languages and literatures department and of the academic senate at California State University at Long Beach, said in an e-mail, summing up the sense of acute concern felt by many faculty members in her state and elsewhere. “At a time when the global economy depends on brains and not brawn, public support for education is at an all-time low.”‘
On this side of the Atlantic, that sounds awfully familiar. As society tries to come to grips with a totally changed economic environment and as governments try to make ends meet, expensive public services have come under fire from all quarters, and higher education is right there amongst them. Two common threads in all this criticism are the charge of under-performance (or rather more accurately, the neglect of students and of frontline teaching), and complaints about allegedly excessive pay for academics. This mood asserts itself almost whenever academics appear in public debate: the response in the letters pages of the Irish Times to the recent meeting in Dublin on academic freedom makes the point, as have some recent articles in the British media.
As I have argued regularly in this blog and elsewhere, there is very little evidence of widespread underperformance by faculty. On the contrary, most lecturers and professors work exceptionally long hours and demonstrate genuine flexibility and goodwill in carrying out their jobs. But while we know that in the universities, we have not persuaded the public, and there is evidence that hostility towards higher education staff is growing, and may persuade politicians to promise or take measures that will seriously damage the system.
Academics often and rightly emphasise that policy should be evidence-based. Anecdotes are not a good basis for strategic reform. On the other hand, however, we are ourselves not good at assembling hard facts that will support our case for support. We are too often unable to prove our assertions about academic workloads, for example, though we know them to be true.
One activity within higher education, therefore, that really is of the utmost importance, is the gathering of hard data. This is now policy across institutions, but is sometimes resisted; though maybe the nature and purpose of these exercises is not always communicated well. We need to be able to document much more precisely what work is done, how it is done, when it is done, and how much it costs. The purpose of this is not to develop new controls, but to assemble reliable information on the basis of which institutions can plan properly and can defend themselves effectively. If we are unable to do this, we may soon find ourselves in genuine peril.