An academic caste system?

Jack Heinemann

Disclaimer: Research activities are important in some disciplines to provide society with views informed by non-commerical or governmental experts. In all disciplines research activites are essential to provide a learning space where research is part of the student experience. I am a researcher as well as teacher and chose to be at an institution that prioritises this mix of activity.

Working for a research university is a big part of my satisfaction. A long time ago I left a comfortable gig at a government research institute because I wanted to do research and use research to teach. I found that here.

Nevertheless, I can’t rely on it always being this way. Our sector is rife with incentives and pressures to become more specialised as either teachers or researchers (and either of those or critic and conscience of society). Despite really good work making success and investment in teaching rewarded and respected through the promotions and award systems, there is reason still for academic vigilance over the balance.

This article is about the potential for research for its own sake to dominate academic culture. Unchecked, the imbalance seeps across generations of academics until normal becomes the old extreme. I was inspired to write this by a picture I saw on Twitter that showed the “balance” of political parties purporting to be on the left and right, where the median is now what used to be called conservative.

My picture is an approximation. It is meant to illustrate not how I see the research/teaching balance at UC, but what it might become if left to drift. No particular balance is all bad. Neither is every balance best.

My thesis is that there are incentives internal and external to the University acting on academics which influence the balance. These incentives are differentially more attractive to the research hemispheres of our brains than the teaching ones are to our teaching hemispheres. The boring bits of each are also differentially more powerful disincentives.

My thesis is described in generalities for which there are notable exceptions. But I believe they represent the general rule.

Why research is so shiny Research success is strongly associated with financial success at both the institutional and individual levels. Success is measured by both outputs (e.g. through PBRF[1], external awards, individual association and institutional rankings) and inputs (e.g. grants received, greater personal autonomy to choose your own timetable of what work to do and when). An example of the power of choice is the flexibility of work scheduling that allows you to determine when to write that paper or grant application, attend key meetings or strike up collaborations or recruit postgraduates, or find the resources to travel to those meetings and visit collaborators.

Often, these measures are additive. In promotions and the PBRF, both outputs and inputs are used as evidence to support an individual’s case. In many cases, the number of postgraduates, which can be related to outputs, external funding and the infrastructure available through external funding, is also added to the profile. Often postgraduate supervison time is added to teaching time rather than research time. The benefits of student research are counted as research achievement and the cost of supervision is counted against the total teaching load. Because undergraduate teaching requires adherence to a much more rigid and externally impossed timetable, the effect is to shift even more self-determination away from teachers and to the researcher.

I’ve never personally seen an attempt to normalise these measures. For example, what happens if you divide the outputs by the fraction of time one has to do research as shown in the Table below? Which of these four academics is more “productive”? Which is likely to be percieved as more worthy of promotion based on research accomplishments?

Table. Hypothetical comparison of research active academics normalised by dedicated work times over an arbitrary time period.

Academic Research time Publications Productivity
1 1 15 15
2 0.8 12 15
3 0.4 7 17.5
4 0.2 4 20
5 0.4 2 5

Why teaching is shiny, but looks dull

Undergraduate teaching and the funding for postgraduate completions dwarf institutional income from research. However, excellence in teaching does not deliver the same degree of individual recognition or work flexibility. Indeed, the reward of the accomplished teacher may be more teaching and thus even less ability to organise work time for research pursuits. Course and teacher excellence are recognised, but the impacts of the loss of a great teacher or a great course are poorly measured.

Other courses and teachers replace them without also much impact on the perception of the University from outside or inside, at least over promotional time periods. In short, teaching that is “good enough” is hard to distinguish from teaching that is “great”. That is in part because teaching involves so many of us in activities that are hard to attribute to individuals, unlike the rigors of peer-reviewed outcomes such as publications and grant success.

Boring is an analog function

Academics like to complain about meetings. But meetings and other administrative demands are not the same for teaching and research. Teaching meetings are rarely exciting because the vast majority are teaching administration meetings. (An exception is “Teaching Month” hint hint.) Teaching moves at a slow pace. It takes years to see the legacy of your work unleashed through successful alumni.

Sure, reseach meetings can be snoozers too. Like the budget meetings. However, most research meeting time is talking research old and new in a dynamic schedule that sees outputs measured in months, not human generation times. The disincentives attached to teaching and research are also, therefore, not equal.

Frozen in time

Academics at UC have been fabulously robust. They have absorbed not just the impacts of natural disasters to look even shinier to the PBRF, but they manage the differentially powerful additive forces behind teaching and research too. Mainly they do so at a collective level which changes the proportion of real research time available to any person over different times of their career. This is significantly aided by the overheads socialised from the grants of some of our most successful researchers.

Despite our robustness, we can freeze individuals into career patterns that neither match their talents nor optimise the institution’s perceptions of its own success. Over and over I’ve seen ad hoc funding for those with failed second round Marsden grants only to never see those grants get funded. But the funding could result in other succcesses for the recipients who used it to build their research reputations and retained greater access to the research lifestyle. If you were not in those temporal anomalies, you might see it harder to escape the differential drag of teaching. These policies are overall successful, probably, but at the individual level it becomes when you were there, not who was there.

I’ve had colleagues who took on big administrative and teaching loads when I did not. This certainly helped my research career. And I’ve done, and continue, to do the same for others by sometimes taking on more administration and teaching. It is how we work best together. But we must manage these temporal events better to avoid creating a caste system that divides academics into research and all-the-others classes.

Frankly, I’ve also seen colleagues that benefited from an investment in their research autonomy only to leave for other institutions with the effect of freezing those they left behind in prolonged positions of elevated administration and teaching as they attempt to help establish new replacements. Would such superstars be so if their productivity were normalised to their research time?

The other side of the question is would those who’ve taken a slow down in research benefit from more research time? Sometimes the answer is no. It depends on the person and what they prioritise in their career at any given time. For example, releasing Academic 2 from more non-research activity will not result in much more research gain.

What I worry about is those for whom the answer is yes. Doubling Academic 4’s research time to match Academic 3’s is predicted to result in increased research outputs but the same is unlikely for Academic 5. Normalisation can help us to identify and target those who are time limited for research. Restructing to achieve a level of research activity can take time and might require help. Perhaps it is not as difficult as building a research activity level for the first time, such as early career academics must do, but the challenges are not so different. Only the aids are.

Solutions?

How we think about using our internal resources to achieve the optimal mix of activities has a profound affect on the individual. For example, the institution may by some arbitrary measure be just as “succesful” with a particular proportion of nearly exclusive researchers and nearly exclusive teachers. That model would certainly conflict with what I value about UC and how I percieve the role of public research universities. It is a kind of caste system.

If other academics at UC share my priorities, then we should be able to find a way to achieve an alternative to the model of academic specialistion into either researcher or teacher classes while at the same time honouring our colleagues who have chosen to seek their gratification from predominantly undergraduate teaching and university administration. It requires that we change how we see income and how to redistribute surplus.

As I mentioned above, small changes to how we measure academic productivity could create more flexibility in how we target the small amounts of money available to help researchers from time to time, at all stages of their careers. Beyond this, some of the proceeds of teaching, which are always socialised, could be virtually banked to buffer the troughs of researchers who have taken on a disproportionate load of non-research activity.

Obviously, I am neither smart enough nor have enough time in a blog to flesh out a real solution. But I hope I have established the veracity of my thesis and sparked a fire that makes the question of what balance we seek, and for whom, burn.

[1] Performance Based Research Fund

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