HERDSA 2011 – day four

The last day of a conference is always rather quiet – people are already heading home, and after days of listening to talks, your brain becomes rather saturated. Today was only a half day, with a smaller number of streams, and the final key note – and unusually, many of the participants stayed through to the end of the conference, perhaps from the promise of the final key note.

I attended a talk this morning on an interview study of emotional responses to the PBRF. I thought this would be useful as we are seeing the impact of the first ERA assessment within our own institutions. The focus was on how individuals responded to their assessment, dealing with an external assessment, and possibly with the resulting feelings of guilt, anger, shame, and pride. They also observed gendered differences in their interviews (with female academics) and similar studies of male academics – although with a light analysis, observing more anger in male participants than female. They also contrasted this with some of the anecdotal responses in NZ universities, including some of the collective action responses and basis for meaningful collective action in such an environment. There is a contrast here between the individualised nature of the assessment (or as it is perceived) and the need to push collaboration in order to achieve strong results, and mentor younger staff – with funding flowing to areas rather than individuals.

This is a pertinent topic – with the ERA results out, and data collected for the next round, institutions and individuals are reacting in quite different ways, and with significant unrest in the sector. Some of the conversation at this conference has talked around the edges of this – the need to respect academic staff for their diversified roles and contribution within an institution, and the need to mentor younger staff in a more competitive climate. The introduction of teaching intensive or teaching only roles, and the impact upon the culture within an institution – the need to push against the creation of a multi-class system within the higher education sector.

There was opportunity to discuss the placement of HERDSA in national and international agendas. Professor Crisp started the discussion by revisiting the ALTC issue, summarising the discussion over its closure, the use of social media to express the concern of the higher education sector, and the impact factor of the ALTC if using standard academic metrics. The role of HERDSA has been as a partner of the ALTC, continuing to support network creation. Conversation then turned to the journal rankings with ERA – although recently dropped as a measure of publications quality in research assessment, they are still visible and driving academic behaviour. The rankings place 80% of research publications as B or below, or in some views, not worthy of publication or of a sufficient research standard. However, this additional research coverage provides a lot of depth in our research areas – case studies, or smaller parts of research that lead to more considerable or significant publications that can then be published in A grade publications. It is still important for the education community to support publication in these areas and to recognise the contribution of work published there – the importance of peer review is not just for the final publication of a complete project, but can have considerable impact and provide benefit on early publication of partial results and preliminary thoughts. We concluded with some final discussion on whether we can build sustainable models of academic practice – to overcome the current environment with reduced numbers of people seeking academic roles, and increased attrition for those that do enter the sector.

The final keynote for the conference was presented by Dr Carol Nicoll, ALTC, who continued the discussion of universities being viewed as solely directed towards economic benefit and the need for us to rethink our current directions, and lead discussion on the value of universities. A stirring address, calling on academics and institutions to lead debate on collaboration over competition in the support for quality higher education, and the need to place learning and teaching first within an institution. Accountability is fair, and appropriate but there needs to open debate over how accountability is assessed, evaluated, discussed and used within the sector.

Dr Nicoll spoke about the increased use of data in higher education (and outside) and stated that we have too much data. I don’t agree with this – I agree with the idea that technology has enabled us to gather much data, and to gather data that is not relevant, but we need to move towards mechanisms for handling data, and working out ways for representing data that can make the magnitude of data that we have available to us understandable and usable, across many contexts. I am always wary when people say that we have too much data, even if qualified to mean that we more data than we can currently deal with. One of the problems with data is that you can’t go back in time to collect it – even if we don’t know how to deal with it all now, we should collect what we are able to now, with the aim of future development and understanding. But yes, that does mean that we have to put considerable effort into recognising what data we can make sense of now – with current mechanisms. And to not be tempted to use data that we don’t understand, or that we know has flaws or is incomplete – it is essentially the basis of good science; we should not apply different scientific principles in the assessment of data or the undertaking of research within the education areas than we would in our discipline research. Dr Nicoll also spoke of the upcoming celebration and final awards presentation by the ALTC, issuing an invitation to those interested in helping celebrate the impact that the ALTC has had upon the sector.

Dr Nicoll closed by introducing the new structure for government funding post ALTC, through a new DEEWR group, staffed by many ex ALTC staff, who will be able to maintain knowledge of the project funding etc across the transition. Oe aspect of importance one now is that the new DEEWR body will be undertaking a period of open consultation, from late July, with the purpose of establishing the aims and processes for the new body. This will be something to watch out for to ensure that those interested in the operation of this new body, and ensuring that the benefits initiated by the ALTC continue into the future.

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