Cracks in the ivory tower: is academia’s culture sustainable?

The pressure on academics is becoming too much, there needs to be cultural change. Stressed image from www.shutterstock.com

The pressure is on. More and more universities and academics are working in a culture that is untenable and cracks in the ivory tower have already begun to appear.

The work environment is now characterised by excessive hours, unrealistic benchmarks, high levels of competitiveness and inflexible (family unfriendly) work arrangements.

No wonder many students are opting out of pursuing research careers, and alarmingly, women in particular are leaving the profession.

Most university employees would argue that their workplace has shifted its focus from education outcomes to one increasingly driven by economics. (After all, the tertiary sector is now a multi-billion dollar industry).

Like Oliver Twist, this shift has seen an ever increasing focus on “more” - more students, more papers, and more grant income. But this narrow focus cannot be sustained.

Tertiary rat race

A good example of this trend is in publication rates. With the ease of online publishing and an ever expanding list of journals in our fields of expertise (ecology and conservation), and countless others no doubt, we’re publishing ever more articles on ever more platforms.

Perhaps ironically, it is well known in ecology that populations which grow at such rates inevitably crash, sometimes with disastrous effects. We only need to look at current financial markets to see the consequences of the continued pursuit of growth.

Compounding this problem is that we now live in an era of rankings. Universities are ranked, journals are ranked, and even individual researchers are ranked.

The “value” of universities and their employees is now measured by the number of papers and citations and the volume of grant income earned.

In short: more is always better.

To be clear, we are not for a second suggesting that we shouldn’t be rewarding our most productive, but the idea has become an ideology.

Measuring up

In the past, metrics of quantity allowed us to assess the performance of researchers, but now they have become an end in their own right. Ironically, once people deliberately pursue key indicators of performance, these indicators become less useful as independent yardsticks of what they were originally designed to measure.

Only a few years ago, researchers who published ten papers a year were regarded as highly productive. Now, leading researchers in our field publish 20, 30, or in extreme cases, over 40 papers a year, and this is a growing trend.

To feed such a volume of papers necessitates large and very well-funded research groups or consortia. So, since grant income is itself a key performance indicator in its own right, funding goes to the biggest groups, keeping them big or growing them even further.

On face value this may seem okay too; however, a bigger group of researchers does not necessarily produce “better” science, just more of it. The outcome of this is that many research themes of solid (but not necessarily exceptional) quality are beginning to dominate the literature through sheer numbers of papers.

Any narrowing in our knowledge base casts serious doubt on our future ability to respond to novel challenges.

We acknowledge the picture we paint is incomplete, with exceptions among the most productive academics, the largest research groups, and the highest impact journals.

But we stand firm in our belief, and that of many others, that we are witnessing an overall trend that is deeply concerning.

Busy academic bees

Academics are busy like never before. Busy with more papers, more grants, more students and more emails just to keep the wheels turning.

And the effects spill over into academics' personal lives. While Australia may not lead the charge in working long hours, here too, many people are staying in their offices longer than they used to. Or more importantly, many more than in the past are glued to their computers in the late evenings or early mornings to somehow combine work and family life.

And with reduced time for creativity and reflection (let alone family), how can academics fulfil our main role – to generate wisdom and knowledge?

We all know that creativity thrives in a context that is supportive and collaborative, where individuals are allowed to try new things - and won’t get in trouble if some of these trials go wrong.

Pressure, on the other hand, tends to make us stressed and perform less than optimally – we can’t be creative at gunpoint. Insight requires not just new experiments, better models, and an ability to write high-impact papers - it requires sitting down without worrying about what it is you need to achieve in the next five minutes.

Many good ideas have come to people while doing things unrelated, such as going for a walk or having conversations in the corridor. Many academics now have less time to engage in such activities than in the past.

Only so many hours in a day

Reflection is about freedom to ponder what it is that makes life interesting; what might deserve study; and why. If we don’t have time to reflect, how can we even judge other people’s work, let alone create our own.

There is a real risk that we become research automatons, simply doing more of what our most respected peers are doing.

In a finite day, more of everything in quantitative terms must mean less of everything in qualitative terms; more efficient new technologies might help us to keep on top of things, but this leaves the underlying problems unaddressed.

So, who would choose academia? If you are interested in questioning the world, is academia really where you would seek a career these days?

Some of the brightest choose different careers, while others start academic careers but are unable or unwilling to cope with the pressures of modern academia.

At present, academia’s cultural ills largely mirror, rather than transcend, the rest of society. An academia that joins the rat race for more (or even leads the charge) is poorly equipped to even know what the questions might be that are worth asking.

We must re-create spaces for reflection, personal relationships, and depth. And accept that more does not always mean better.