My commentary below was prompted by this letter published earlier today by Liz Morrish in the Times Higher Education. Since yesterday there has been a concerted effort by UCU and the Guardian to expose the crude exploitation of half of the academic staff in Universities in the UK. Adding to the insult, managers ‘disappear’ through restructuring permanent positions. The issue is whether Professors should be fired when they do not produce the outputs requested by their ‘bosses’ (sic).
University management calls in academic for performance management – UK, 2016.
The period from starting training as a Ph.D. student until one reaches promotion to a professorship spans a couple of decades during which the individual becomes an expert in a field of science. This development is by no means a triviality, it forms the basis of the professorial experience, upon which knowledge is built, scrutinized and safeguared, transmitted and applied. When professors are asked to go either because they did not make an announcement deemed “fancy” in certain venues or because their application for funding was rejected (often with comments that the research proposal was very good, but there was insufficient money to support all deserving applications), entire scientific fields are weakened, sometimes even turn extinct. This irreplaceable loss and ensuing damage remains largely unappreciated in the current modus operandi in the UK.
A second issue, somewhat better recognised but nevertheless not corrected, is that breakthroughs in knowledge almost always require concentration, time and effort and also depend on collaborations between scientists that dedicate such concentration, time and effort towards understanding. University positions used to offer such a possibility, they clearly fail to do so in the current model, as they put immense pressure for immediate responses.
There are two further reasons why the destruction of the universities in the UK is not widely understood. First, because those who speak out are almost always sidelined, sometimes to the extent of seeing their careers destroyed, instilling fear to express one’s views (the inconsistency of this fear with holding an academic position should be discussed more openly). Second, because those who call the game of the day (grants, papers, etc.) always reward a minority, which is then presented as the cream of the cream and compared favourably against metrics generated to reward precisely such a minority. Hence, all good academics not meeting targets are then viewed as failures and hence they self-sensor.
The decline of higher education in the United Kingdom is slow, because it has a great tradition that still has an influence despite the present attacks. The consequences of the present folly, that affect the wellbeing of this generation’s academic body, will result in a weakened society in the following generation, when painfully-built expertise, honesty and knowledge will be found lacking.