The nature of academia is changing. Despite once conjuring up images of scholars benevolently trying to solve life’s great mysteries behind the protection of the ivory tower, universities today have come to hide their own dark secrets.
With reports steadily emerging from researchers about poor career prospects, zero-hours contracts, low pay, long working hours and inflexible working conditions, cracks are beginning to form in the ivory tower’s once well-respected façade.
Historically, the academic enterprise was once seen as the cornerstone of a progressive society, responsible for educating a decent labour force and producing innovations to improve our quality of life.
In its heyday, the value of a university was measured by the quality of its teaching and the calibre of the students who passed through its doors. Generating knowledge for knowledge’s sake also went without question. There was no shame in simply satisfying our curiosity about the world around us and no pressure to predict potential impact levels.
Today, however, in a world where league tables matter, academia has become far more prescriptive. A university’s worth is now judged by the revenue it generates and the amount of citations and grants obtained by its staff.
Although good quality teaching is still very much a priority, today’s academics are now expected to deliver inspiring lectures on top of churning out a high volume of first-rate publications that are guaranteed to spawn impressive impact metrics and score highly in research assessment exercises.
Research, too, is now all-too-often selected and supported for its ability to bolster an institution’s competitive advantage, threatening to render notions of academic freedom and creativity distant memories of days gone by.
The original values of a university are now virtually unrecognisable behind a cut-throat, commercial academic agenda, which forces institutions and individuals alike into constant competition for resources and rewards.
The academy’s core values of camaraderie, collaboration and civility have been replaced by a climate of intense internal competition, which has profound, although often overlooked, ramifications on researchers working within the system. For them, experimenting with ideas and inspiring young minds as part of a collective is no longer enough.
Internal pressures to reach the very top of their game are forcing academics to turn their focus inwardly and to make decisions based on what will help them to progress in their career, even if this means causing offence to others.
And therein lays the danger of our new academic ‘culture’: The quest for scholarly prestige can, for some people, easily spiral into the heartless pursuit for power and profit; the goal of carving out an academic reputation can, at times, lead to ruthlessness and resentment when others fare better; and to be ambitious in a reward-based system can, in the worst cases, breed aggression, anxiety and antagonism.
Moreover, academic tradition only makes things worse. Criticism has always been part and parcel of rigorous scholarship. Submitting work for peer review has long been standard academic practice, giving academics the power to make or break careers and determine the fate of their colleagues.
In a culture once driven by collegiality, we have come to expect trust, respect and honesty to govern the peer review process. Yet, in a system now organised around competition for limited provisions and prospects for promotion, it is unsurprising that some individuals overlook these values and, instead, are tempted to demean their peers and hinder their career advancement.
This ‘me first’ approach is also not helped by academia’s demanding working conditions. In labs an entrenched hierarchy prevails which determines whose agenda dominates the work flow and whose name takes precedence on publications, whilst for more independent researchers, long hours spent in isolation in libraries or archives can take its toll on basic social capabilities and interactions.
While the realities of the academic environment do not excuse individuals from displaying discriminatory or anti-social behaviour towards others, they go some way to explaining why some academics do not see anything untoward about their own uncouth conduct, or why they are attuned to thinking about themselves and their own gain first. When it comes down to it, the system in which they work has come to facilitate narcissistic and egotistical behaviour, if not even demand it.
In this context, putting an emphasis back on the original values of a university could do much to quell the rise of bullying and discrimination. Allowing the market-driven model to dominate the higher education sector for so long has only created a vacuum of values in the way the academic system operates, removing a university’s in-built system of moral checks and balances that might otherwise serve to keep its staff on the straight and narrow.
The ivory tower has lost sight of its primary, foundational function – namely, to nurture the flourishing of the human spirit for the benefit of wider society. When community values were at the core of the academy, its outputs were beneficial to civil society and its workforce adhered to the principles of partnership, equality and fairness. With these values now replaced by the pursuit of profit and fame, is it any wonder that the new academic arena has become a breeding ground for bullies?
If the ivory tower is to retain its image of an idyllic place to work, then, it would not go far wrong in revisiting the common and societal-based values that once shaped its past. Without these values, the academy has no value to anything other than itself. And without these values, the academy may as well prepare for anarchy now.
Dr Diana Beech is a research consultant at the Research Information Network and a research associate at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where she currently manages a project exploring the role and relevance of values to contemporary European research policy. Beech is also an active member of the EURAXESS ‘Voice of the Researchers’ network, providing researchers with a channel to influence policy in the European Research Area.
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