Thursday, 18 October 2012

Bread or Freedom,

A fascinating talk at college this evening from Jeremy Ramsden, a professor of Nanotechnology at Cranfield University on the threat posed by the corporatism of Universities.

Jeremy suggests that the managerial structures, which every institution in the UK works within, are inimical to free and meaningful research and the need for Universities to maximise their income, leads to research projects increasingly being written in response to the stipulated criteria of the research councils.

This isn't just unfortunate, but on occasion highly dangerous, as the need to maximise income leads to the very real need to please the client. Unpopular, or unorthodox findings, might jeopardise an ongoing and lucrative arrangements.

The talk reminded me of Richard Bean's wonderful play on climate change and academic freedom - 'The Heretic' which played at the Royal Court last spring, where an academic whose research had convinced her that climate change had only a negligible impact on the natural world was censured by her management team who were tying up a big investment from an ethical, carbon neutral company. Bean's twist was clever as most in the audience were both conscientious liberals with a tendency to worry about the ozone layer and believers in the kind of academic freedom of expression represented by the main protagonist.

I recognise the problem, but find it hard to see a solution beyond dividing the HE sector into research and training. The growth in post-18 education has been broadly successful. More young people staying in education for longer does help reduce crime, create jobs, lengthen lives and so from a utilitarian societal perspective it's a good thing. This focus on training, however, has led to the very corporatism that Jeremy was talking about. As an academic I'm corporatised to deliver qualifications to students, who, in the process are corporatised to find employment in the market place. Apart from sounding like a mundane teadmill this all needs funding and a supportive administrative structure, which as Jeremy suggests, fixes working patterns and dictates the shape of everything from departments to ideas.

It's clear that very few undergraduates can pro-actively contribute to their tutor's research - unless of course that research is in them. Many academics, feel, even if they don't say, that the volume of students that they have to see each week, rather than aiding their research, simply gets in the way. Also the very reliance on an administrative culture means that many members of a Universities hierarchy can only demonstrate their ability to fulfil their management role by constantly requesting data from those members of staff in contact with students. A time consuming and ultimately pointless process. Transparency and accountability sound prudent, but a slavish insistance on their authority they can stop radical or free thinking teaching and research in its tracks.

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