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.

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9 Comments on “How should the academic community respond to critical public opinion?”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    Again, Ferdinand, explain how Full Economic Costing exercises are anything other than fictions. And if you can’t, then explain why requiring academics to write fictions of this sort so they can be collected into a huge pile that can be presented to the public as “truth” is anything other than a complete waste of everyone’s time.


    • Ernie, I don’t know how this exercise is done in every institution, but it shouldn’t be a fiction. It is notoriously difficult to pin down precisely how academics work and what amount of time is spent on what, but we do need to try to get it as right as possible. This is important for all sorts of reasons: partly in order to be able to respond credibly to all the nonsense that gets put into the public domain by our detractors, and partly so we can cost our activities properly and make sure that those funding us do so adequately. It genuinely is in everyone’s interests to do this and to do it as right as we can.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Ferdinand, it shouldn’t be a fiction, yet it is and necessarily so. The form we fill out every 4 months is this one.

        I’m asked to decide the percentages of my time that I spent on research, on teaching, on administration and other things. I don’t fill out this form because it would be intellectually dishonest to do so: I have no idea what the percentages are. And the reason I have no idea what the percentages are is not just a matter of inadequate record keeping. Even with the best imaginable record keeping, there is a metaphysical problem: my research and teaching cannot be separated. I spend a lot of my time reading books. These books variously feed both my research and teaching, depending on the book. It’s not that I have no idea how to apportion the time I spend doing these things. It’s that any apportioning that I came up with would be made up because, frankly, there is no truth of the matter.

        Nothing would be resolved by replacing percentages by hours.

        “Research” and “teaching” are separate categories only for bureaucrats. But that doesn’t mean they are really separate, no matter how much you and other administrators insist that they must be. So when you argue that we must or should do this, your position is philosophically confused. “Ought” implies “can.” And we can’t, no matter how badly you want it.

        Myself, I think it’s absolutely urgent that we develop triangular squares, preferably ones that are entirely red and entirely green simultaneously. We must do it, naysayers be damned!

  2. Angela Says:

    So you seem to be supporting FEC and other utter time-wasting form-filling exercises? Well, I suppose we’ve allowed the managerialist model this far into our universities, we might as well start clocking in and out too. After all, we are no more than a comercial for-profit organisation….


    • Angela, with all due respect that’s not a very sensible attitude to take. This is not a time-wasting exercise, and getting it as right as possible may determine whether we get adequate recognition and funds: see my response to Ernie above. However, I recognise that the universities need to explain this properly to their own staff and work with them to get it right.

  3. Dan Says:

    I agree with Ferdinand, actually.

    We do – in these times of scapegoats, witch-hunts and Salem-like hysteria – need to practically demonstrate, argue and illustrate how hard academics actually work; the late hours and weekends worked, the research projects led, books and papers written, the vast range of teaching accomplished, the significant contributions made to institutions and community.

    It becomes a real problem though if the recording of such activities elbows the activities themselves aside, when the act of observation alters the observed. It also doesn’t help when public comment on same is made in a denigrating way – see Ed Walsh’s Irish Times article – which destroys any trust between the observers and observed.

  4. Jim Says:

    I also agree with Ferdinand. Most of us are funded by the taxpayer and should be required to provide some account of what we do. What is the alternative?

    Of course this should be a lightweight exercise. Having to fill in a form (such as Ernie’s) with nine fields 3 times a year is hardly a heavy burden. If an activity (such as reading) does not neatly fit into one box, it’s hardly too hard to divide its allocation across a few categories in some sensible way?

    Personally, I would welcome the opportunity to tell someone how I split my time, though with 16 hours of student contact per week (IoT sector), mostly at late stage undergraduate and masters level, I suppose it should be fairly obvious that I’m not exactly idle!

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      It’s not that it’s a “burden.” It’s that you’re asking me to lie when I fill out that form: to pretend to know things I do not know. That is inimical to the ethos of the academic.

      And, again, this kind of fake accountability, based as it is on a lie, provides no service at all to the taxpayer.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    Let’s suppose none of the conceptual difficulties (dividing research from teaching, notably) arise. The exercise would still provide nothing but false data. And that’s the important point: those demanding “accountability” want to know how much people are working. But they can’t claim to know anything at all if the people filling out the forms are just making stuff up. At best, they’re guessing. At worst, there’s no truth of the matter for them to guess.

    Don’t believe me? OK, please provide an accounting of how much time you spent driving in the last 4 months. Please divide it up into time spent rolling and time spent stationary. Then tell me how much of that time was spent with your left-turn signal on. And then the right. And now during how much of that time were your brake lights on?

    Still think the information that you’d provide would be worth anything or that anyone else would be justified in drawing conclusions (or, worse, deciding policy) on the basis of that information?


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