It’s time to ditch the ‘old academic identity’ to survive funding cuts

When money’s tight, there’s no better time for researchers to bust out of the Ivory Tower and actively engage with the public. Nhoj Leunamme == Jhon Emmanuel/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Much has already been written about the pressure on the Australian university system due to the federal government’s planned deregulation of fees, course funding cuts and significant research funding cuts.

Add to this yesterday’s report that the government would consider billions of dollars in university research cuts if the Senate blocks its proposed sector changes.

The implications are major for large and smaller universities alike. Institutions are already cutting costs and reconfiguring internally in order to navigate the hostile environment looming on the horizon. For instance, the University of Melbourne is cutting A$70 million and our own institution, Victoria University, is cutting A$50 million.

Of course, the financial bottom line is critical to determining what happens in Australian higher education. Indeed, it may take some smaller universities to the brink of viability.

But beyond the dollars moving in and out of the system, what the people within universities do in response to such pressures is also vital. An important question thus far ignored in public debate is how we should think of Australian academic identity and purpose in this environment.

What does it mean to be an academic in Australia today? What should the academic do? These are crucial questions to be considered in any climate, but especially when the Australian university system is under threat.

What is an ‘academic’?

Some time ago University of Sydney senior lecturer Ruth Barcan observed:

Contemporary academics are situated simultaneously within a number of different models of professional practice: scholarly, bureaucratic and managerial/corporate. These models […] are modes of knowledge that involve the operations of power, that are produced within institutions, and that produce a certain kind of social subject – in this case, different versions of ‘the academic’. Each of these discourses produces a paradigm of what is thinkable, sayable or do-able as an academic.

Of course, the modern academic is not a homogeneous entity. We arrive and develop our professional identities as we go, shaped by different life experiences, disciplinary backgrounds, training and career trajectories, capabilities and interests.

Wikimedia Commons

Our activities may involve teaching and curriculum development, administration, looking for funding, doing and publishing research, plus performing services to our disciplines, profession, institution and community (and much more).

Most people will be familiar with the elitist Ivory Tower caricature of privilege, pomp and ceremony, where academics are wilfully removed from the world around them.

In this “old” type of academic identity, success is largely measured by serious (read: peer-reviewed) academic publications, grant income and service to institution and discipline. Here, arguably, the orientation towards knowledge is passive and authoritarian: here’s the truth … use it if you know what’s good for you.

This kind of academic identity is still being played out. But regardless of what you might think an academic is, does or should do, we think the most important issue is your orientation towards the core of academic endeavour: the production, evaluation and dissemination of knowledge.

In short, what you do with what you create. Increasingly, the sector is being called to account on this as the world changes around us.

Mode 1 and Mode 2 knowledge production

The idea of “Mode 2” knowledge was outlined by Michael Gibbons and colleagues in their 1994 book The New Production of Knowledge.

They argue that knowledge production has increasingly shifted out of the academic institution, and away from the exclusive realms of homogeneous scientific disciplines operating in isolation.

For Gibbons and colleagues, Mode 2 knowledge supplements traditional knowledge. Unlike “Mode 1” knowledge, Mode 2 knowledge is made as and where it is applied, and by transdisciplinary collaboration. Mode 2 production is reflexive and has socially accountable quality measures – as distinct to the in-house peer-review system for Mode 1 knowledge.

In a sense then, Mode 2 knowledge production is outward-looking and outward-acting, and the judgement of its value can come from outside of academic institutions.

The Mode 2 concept is not without its critics. But criticisms aside, we argue that your relationship to the type of knowledge production you engage in as an academic (however you define it), can provide some clues to how you might act in “using” that knowledge.

So, if you’re comfortable in the passive authoritative knowledge production sphere, then presumably you will place less emphasis on the need for an engaged and active public role or voice.

Melanie Hayes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Whereas if you see yourself within the “Mode 2” space, you will likely see as your responsibility the task of public engagement and knowledge dissemination well beyond the formats and settings prescribed by traditional academic research.

What should the 21st-century Australian academic do?

In terms of public approval, “the academic” is rated fairly highly – the Roy Morgan 2014 Image of Professionals survey ranked university lecturers tenth out of 30 professions.

Despite this positive view, it is still worth contemplating how the Australian academic could do more to be publicly engaged and visible – especially amidst government attacks on the university system.

Our view is that 21st-century academics should be known as engaged, active and critical advocates for knowledge and change – not as passive, authoritarian and disconnected careerists that a system driven by market forces will inevitably produce or give permission to flourish.

An outward-looking, outward-acting approach is especially needed in academic fields that are relevant to the most pressing public problems in society. This includes areas such as medicine and public health, environment, science and technology, education, arts and culture and politics and economics.

But then again, all academic fields have a public relevance and value don’t they? More knowledge is surely a good thing – even if it doesn’t always lead to discernible change.

For better or worse, academics speak from a position of expertise in critical thinking and/or knowledge about issues or public policy questions developed through research and years of training.

Of course, academics are not the only people in the community who can think critically. They are far from the only group whose views, opinions and expertise matter.

Nevertheless, the academic has a valid voice and position of expertise. It should be made heard because, as publicly funded people, academics have a responsibility to contribute far beyond peer-reviewed outputs seen by others within academia.

The academic voice and expertise should also be made public because now, more than ever before, it is easy to do. The digital world has provided us with a huge array of communication tools. Social media has its pitfalls, but the evidence is starting to suggest the potential benefits may outweigh these.

Finally, academics have a responsibility to be engaged in the public sphere because the corporatisation of the university (and with it the increasing focus on brand risk) is eroding opportunities and permissions to do so. See Noam Chomsky discuss corporatisation in the video below.

In our view, the contribution of the university sector to 21st-century society would be greatly enhanced by the academic being actively involved with and within the community. We could be a little more Waleed Aly, Marcia Langton and Paul Mees, and a little less Shit Academics Say.

The key question is: will the corporatised university, with its evaporating base of government support, recognise and reward the value of this outward-looking mode of academic work? After all, it takes time and energy that might otherwise be used to produce another peer-reviewed article.

Albert Einstein once said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” In the long run, we ignore this at our peril.

What do you think about the position and purpose of the academic in Australia today? Should the academic be more publicly engaged and active?