Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The 4 elements of Academia


Professor Beardyman

Just to show I am down with the youth, I am going to compare academia to hip hop. As you all know, there are 4 fundamental elements of Hip-Hop. You knew that didn’t you? You didn't? Oh allow me to educate you – they are:
Beardyman: Though the beard may be a bit oversold

1. Bboying
2. MCing
3. Graffiti
4. DJing. Obviously.

Why am I showing off my Vanilla Ice like knowledge of the patois of modern culture? Well there are 4 elements to academia, publishing, grant writing, teaching and admin. In my quest to inform the great unwashed (yes that’s you, the one not really paying attention in the back) about what academics do, this week’s tortured musing is going to give an overview of why we think these elements matter. Though you will be pleased to know I am not going to stretch my torturous analogy to linking say Grant writing to B-boying – mainly because I don’t know what Bboying is!

Zen and the art of university maintenance

There are 3 ways of viewing the elements

Idealistic: Universities are dreaming spired bastions of learning and higher education where we educate young minds, push back the boundaries of knowledge and enrich the greater good by applying Kantean dialectics to the routes of the romantic poem. In this worldview teaching is central, admin is giving back to the university, paper writing a joy and grants a dirty word as there should be an inherent understanding of the intrinsic good our esteemed institutions do.

Fatalistic: The economy is fucked, George Osborne is busily grinding the last traces of state funded endeavour into a dry dust of free market neo-con fury. In this less than enlightened time, we have to pay our way and our work has to have IMPACT (if there was an option to make the word flash and somehow sear itself into your skin, that would be the font I should use, but a whole other blog is needed to talk about IMPACT). Our work is publicly funded from hard working honest tax payers' money and we should never be allowed to forget it. The university is a business and every action should be to support the mission statement and bring money into the university.

A third way: Like the force, there needs to be balance in the univers(ity). The money that pays for our salaries does come from somewhere and most of it comes from the taxpayer. In return I need to do something more productive than watch Beardyman videos on YouTube (though the kitchen diaries is awesome). Academics do need to contribute to the running of the place and the education of the students. But at the same time we should be in a position to carry on researching the relative importance of early-latin swear stones (if we wish).

The academic transfer market (my one paragraph of soapbox ranting)

These different approaches have an impact on university life. As with all educational institutions in the UK, universities are ranked and what does ranking bring…Prizes (or substantial funding from the government in the form of QR and QT grants from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, but prizes is more catchy). They are ranked on a number of different criteria, but the two big ones are the REF (a quinquennial exercise evaluating research output and IMPACT) and the QA (which evaluates teaching). These evaluations are based on individuals, which generates a transfer market in academics, with the superstar professors moving between the big universities demanding more space, more salary, more acolytes and flunkies to peel them raw grapes. This can have a number of negative repercussions: focussing resources on a small handful of individuals, damaging departmental cohesion, depleting the pension pot (which was final salary based) and putting academic career development at a lower priority – why train people when you can just buy someone in. The other concern is just because they are big hitters doesn’t mean they are team players and the perceived benefit of what they bring may be offset by the friction and resentment they cause. To crunch metaphors, we should aspire to have more Stephen Gerrards (who played for one club his whole career, possibly to the detriment of the amount of medals he won), people who grew up in one institution are to my mind, more likely to be loyal to that institution, understand the culture of the institution and are more inclined to contribute in the small ways necessary to keep it running. Then again, we can all get a bit inward looking and fresh perspective always helps.

Nick Clegg and the new student generation.

Crikey, got slightly off topic there. Must. Focus. 12 months ago I would have said that successful grant writers will inherit the ivory towers. They were perceived to bring in cold hard cash that pays for the buildings, the electricity, the salaries of the people who work in the mystery blue box (and as a sideline get a small bit of money to do research). However, times have changed, and the quants who run the institutions have realised that students = money: £9,000 x as many people you can squeeze into a lecture theatre per year. This has the beginnings of a major revolution in universities. Firstly (and don’t tell them) this gives the students real power as consumers, if the teaching is not up to scratch they can head to the twitterbookapp thingy and troll the course – luckily most of them are too busy being students to realise this empowerment. Secondly, those who teach and particularly those who teach well, suddenly have become more valuable. With the increased focus on teaching, it is possible that the superstar teachers will now also be commoditised and traded between the colleges. I suspect we are a way off Panini doing a sticker album of high flying academics, buy maybe academic top trumps is not too inconceivable! Imagine the fun - oh no I can’t believe you beat my Nobel Prize winner with your senior administrator.

Not so Deep Conclusion

Academics need to deliver a range of diverse functions within the space of the working day (like most jobs). I would argue that the breadth of skills required is unique, ranging from preparing sales pitches to writing technical literature to teaching to management. Then again I have no experience of any other job, except stacking shelves in a refrigerated warehouse, so have little to compare it against. There are some people who excel in a single area and are prized by the institutions, but the rest of us have to muddle by with a mix of all aspects. 

To entice you to come back soon, the next few editions of this blog will unpack each element (dreadful business speak fail) and what is involved in them, probably, or I might just talk about my lunch – again.

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