My friend and colleague Tennyson Joseph would say neo-liberalism and academia but I will choose the language of management studies and human resource departments. There is absolutely little doubt that this paradigm shift places aspects of academic freedom in jeopardy.
Recent struggles over higher education have taken place in a context of financial austerity, where a new “business” model of higher education has called for the dramatic reduction of labour costs through such strategies as eliminating tenure and replacing full-time academics with adjuncts in the US for instance, and part-time staff in the Caribbean. This has led a senior academic in the US system to contend that “the idea of higher education as a public good has, it seems, very little purchase in the discourse of austerity.”
But even before this present discourse, more radical academics held the view that there is tremendous economic self-interest or class in the predominance of conservative, and today neo-liberal views on public policy issues. This is especially true of those who cosy up to governments and the private sector and who consult for government and business. But unfortunately, it also extends to those who receive large research grants. It seems that one cannot escape co-optation.
The Principal of the Cave Hill Campus neatly captured the conundrum facing the UWI in her address to post-graduate students during their orientation on Tuesday, August 27, 2018. As reported by a local newspaper, Principal Barriteau stated that the “UWI exists to create knowledge, to improve Barbadian and Caribbean societies and to raise the quality of life and living within the Caribbean countries. And, yes, we do so in a financially sound and sustainable manner”. In that signal statement, the principal acknowledged the importance of academics to society whilst also noting that financing models may have implications for some elements of what many authorities see as academic freedom. It is a conundrum that many universities face and has brought academics into sharp conflict with university administrators in many countries.
As one scholar wrote, “Everything that can be measured is measured. Money, it seems, then becomes the measure of all things.” Consequently in this environment, anything perceived to be of little monetary value is in serious jeopardy. So in many debates and in the narrative that I hear, it appears that once the value of an academic discipline cannot be measured in monetary terms, it ought not to exist except where the disciplines are connected to the institution‘s leadership. A “Hobson choice” is made. Institutions of higher learning must become “leaner and meaner” except where it is inconvenient.
Increased pressure, “gaming” the system, and intellectuality
One of the articles I came across while undertaking research on the meaning of academic freedom was authored by Robert Bullough Jr. entitled Higher Education and the Neo-Liberal Threat: Place, Fast Time and Identity. In it, Bullough contended that the Emerging Global Model (EGM) represents nothing less than the “leading edge of higher education’s embrace of the forces of globalism”. He goes on to argue that EGM’s are characterised by “an intensity of research that far exceeds past experience. They are engaged in worldwide competition for students, faculty, staff, and funding; they operate in an environment in which traditional political, linguistic, and access boundaries are increasingly porous. These top universities look beyond the boundaries of the countries in which they are located to define their scope as trans-national in nature”. Knowledge production becomes paramount with teaching and service playing a secondary role and, in so doing, this has fundamentally transformed the purpose of a university.
Without pursuing all that was raised in this provocative piece, Bullough, points to the changes in staff profile at universities. In the US for instance, it is estimated that universities now hire growing numbers of “comparatively cheap itinerant faculty” approaching some 70 per cent of all faculty. In his view, while this obviously has some utility, there are also limits to its continued use because, “At some point, changing who teaches within the university alters the nature of the educational experience of students and undermines the quality of that experience, which is essential to sustaining product competitiveness and therefore, institutional viability. So part-time or adjunct staff is absolutely indispensable but we need to move towards converting these positions into tenured ones. How do you achieve that knowledge production with a primarily part-time staff? The contradiction is stark!
A third issue raised is the requirements for ever more and more publication output by academics who are facing increasing administrative and other demands from the university. We are told that you must publish a certain number of articles a year. Firstly, where is the time to do the much needed research? Secondly, where is the money? Thirdly, are we to engage only in short term research projects? Projects which may have questionable quality outcomes? Should we be surprised that faced with unrealistic demands that some resort to questionable publication sources? That is the experience of universities in the US and Europe.
What this has also encouraged is, as Bullough notes, a range of clever strategies for increasing productivity that only result in undermining quality of output. Interestingly, Bullough cites the example of a famous physicist who amassed four hundred and fifty articles (yes 450), by engaging in projects that do not require extensive and time consuming inquiry, splitting results into multiple articles rather than a single paper. This is referred to as “gaming” the system.
It is also estimated that about 90 per cent of published academic papers are never cited, with as many as 50 per cent never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors. I am sympathetic to the journalist who questions the value of the research that we are told needs to be done if it never gets read. And often, these are brilliant pieces of work even though their opposite also exists.
In an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2010, authored by Mark Bauerlein et al., We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research, the authors argued that the avalanche of unread research can only stop if the system of rewards at the University changes. In their view, what is required is “… policy makers and grant makers (to) focus not on money for current levels of publication, but rather on finding ways to increase high-quality work and curtail publication of low-quality work. If only some forward-looking university administrators initiated changes in hiring and promotion criteria and ordered their libraries to stop paying for low-cited journals, they would perform a national service. We need to get rid of administrators who reward faculty members on printed pages and downloads alone, deans and provosts “who can’t read but can count,” as the saying goes. Most of all, we need to understand that there is such a thing as over publication, and that pushing thousands of researchers to issue mediocre, forgettable arguments and findings is a terrible misuse of human, as well as fiscal, capital”. That is not to say, however, that we await an Arthur Lewis moment to publish a brilliant piece for example. It is quite possible that it will never come. Arthur Lewis was brilliant! He did so quite naturally!
So yes, we are altering the goal post. And the new language is citation and journal impact factor, but unfortunately, without altering the numbers game. How about just easing up on academics? What university can exist without them? What society can exist without them? It is not about a mushrooming academic bureaucracy; it is about students and academics. It is not about maintaining the status quo; it is about challenging the status quo. Without that challenge, what kind of society would we have? Without academics there is quite simply, no university. Students come because we are there/here! A university cannot be without these two groups. And perhaps the lethargy, lack of interest in anything but gaming the system will be arrested. That is my view, and I believe it absolutely and I stand by it.
University governance and academics
It is also argued that academics ought always to be at the forefront of governance at the university on the grounds that by virtue of their “training and competence, their long-lasting professional occupation with certain subject matter, as well as the fact that such decisions will have a long-term effect on their scholarly work…”, they are the most logical group of people qualified to ensure that decisions taken by the university are ‘in the best interest of science and scholarship’ and support academic freedom. Yet, this is not always the case.
In this new era of enhanced bureaucratic oversight, academic decisions taken by academics are second guessed and opposed by administrators who often have little basis in academic disciplines other than in a generalised and limited way. But I suppose The Chronicle of Higher Education does have a point when it argues in a 2009 piece, written by Gary A. Olson, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Idaho State University, entitled, Exactly What is Shared Governance, that “No one person is arbitrarily making important decisions absent the advice of key constituents; nor is decision making simply a function of a group vote. The various stakeholders participate in well-defined parts of the process.”
Academics then are always participants in the strategic decision making at universities. Not alone, but important, as there are other stake holders involved, including governments, business, students and other vested interest. And it is here that academics often part company with the “others”. It is true that universities must now make more complex decisions than they did some twenty years ago given the new challenges they face, whether these challenges are from offshore universities such as the onslaught of medical universities entering the environment in Barbados for instance, reduced funding, and others. Such challenges require a sufficiently adept leadership capable of making strategic decisions in a timely manner. Yet the approach ought never to be hierarchical and elitist, excluding all but a few privileged faculty.
If I have not delivered what I promised last week, it is quite simply a function of the article taking a life of its own, my general tiredness and so perhaps, just perhaps more next week… But in the meantime, adieu to academic freedom.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)