HERDSA Session 5 – the changing nature of academia

With the introduction of the RQF and then ERA, the Australian University sector has seen a significant push over recent years to increase research output. I have worked for the same school during this time, and have seen our own university and school change to become more research focussed, through changes in targets for existing staff and the employment of new staff who are more research intensive. This, of course, introduces tensions in striving to deliver high quality teaching – or it can do anyway, when academics (at all levels) interpret the push for more research to mean a push against teaching. With this rather prickly background, I am always interested in attending presentations that explore research development, and the changing nature of academic life.

The first presentation today talked about models for research development, by Shelda Debowski, UWA. Based upon her work in developing the Go8 future research leaders program, her recent work looks at support programmes used in other countries, as part of a Churchill Fellowship.

Her findings indicated that we are part way towards developing good, consistent models for research leadership – many universities are experimenting with this area, research leaders identify the need for training and support, but there are as yet no clear, consistent methodologies. One of the problems is that the ownership of the problem is somewhat distributed within individual institutions.

Some of the areas where our researchers have identified that they need support in include moving towards collaborative research, or research leadership – many of our researchers are able to undertake solid research projects and produce useful outcomes, however, in order to be successful researchers need to develop skills in engaging others in their research. They need to understand local, national and global strategic priorities and need to build networks to foster research collaborations.

Why do they need to do all of this? Why didn’t other researchers have to do this? One of the interesting aspects of these discussions that I keep seeing presented are the increased pressures on early career researchers. We expect these researchers to produce more significant outcomes at a very early stage – more publications, early grants, successful collaborations with international reputation. In some ways, our push to increase the research output for research intensive universities is being felt most at the ECR level.

Although I have no problem with supporting our researchers and providing good resources for ECRs, I question whether we are really addressing the right question here. Why are we pushing our ECRs so hard? Or perhaps, more importantly, are we going to end up with the result that we are seeking? Will we drain the energy from these staff members? Will we drive them away from academia, and into alternative research pathways?

Research models are important to explore, and I am all in favour of Shelda’s work. And I agree with her comments on whether the focus is appropriate – is it in on outcomes (yes) and not on developmental opportunities (which it should be). If, and that is a relevant question in itself, we want to increase the research outputs for our research intensive universities, we need to push our focus to mid level and experienced researcher development, and take some of the pressure off of ECRs.

Mentorship relationships can be a very fruitful source of support, but is one that has not been utilised as much as it could be – according to this study, ECRs are hesitant to seek mentorship relationships, and often, if they do exist, they are confused with supervision relationships. I can’t echo the importance of mentorship more strongly, having benefited throughout my career from several informal and formal mentorship relationships.

The second talk in this session was presented by Lawrence Cram, ANU, regarding the linkage between teaching and research, with a large number of useful links to further reading, including: http://www.mickhealey.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Linking-Research-and-Teaching-Bibliography.doc
http://rer.sagepub.com/content/66/4/507.abstract
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075070701573781

Lawrence applies a complexity theory model to analysing the connections between research and teaching, highlighting the need to understand how senior academics understand research priorities as they form part of the bias of an institution regarding research and teaching. Lawrence identifies several factors that lead to an artificial distance between research and teaching, including prestige from research rather than teaching, differences in funding, differences in how contracts are treated for research and teaching only, but many more that all form parts of the complexity model that he is researching. Lawrence nicely finished with a reference to <a href="http://http://teachingphilosophyworkgroup.bgsu.wikispaces.net/file/view/BoyerScholarshipReconsidered.pdf/292010539/BoyerScholarshipReconsidered.pdf“>Boyer, and in discussions elaborated on his opinion that we need to rebalance the focus of education with Australia – that we have gone too far in pushing the research (with the idea that students will continue to learn anyway!), and that we are short changing our students.

In the comments, there was an interesting conversation regarding that the often discussed tension between teaching and research is about time, while one of the attendees was indicating that it is not about time, but more so about the different techniques and spaces that we exist in when we are working on one of these areas. Study leave, as I have already discussed, helps with this – you get time to focus on research, which also gives you space to explore the nexus between the two.

The final talk in this session talks more about the alternative conflict facing universities which is viewing universities as filing a narrow economic function, presented by Wayne O’Donohue, Griffith University. This presentation reported on a research project using identity theory to explore the identity conflict introduced by managerialism views recently introduced into universities. The issue here is that many academics have a sense that their identity is different from that wanted by the Universities, and also in some cases, by here academics themselves. The conceptual framework here contrasted managerial ideology and professional ideology, not that the latter does not recognise economic issues, but that the view of those issues and how they are interpreted by those with a professional ideology, with it’s focus on societal benefit, is different.

This is one of the few presentations that I have attended where the full paper is available, and has an extensive reference list and literature review which I can recommend as a thoughtful discussion of identify theory and work ideology.

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One thought on “HERDSA Session 5 – the changing nature of academia

  1. Pingback: Exploiting the new academic « Katrina Falkner

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