Ferdinand von Prondzynski had a post on his blog lamenting the loss of university autonomy implied by HEA Head Tom Boland’s recent speech in which he proposed the now-infamous idea of “directed diversity” for our universities. Ferdinand summarised this idea as follows: “The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.”
To which I responded:
“Directed diversity” is no more nor less offensive in an academic context than is the notion of “strategic objectives.” . . . [I]t makes no difference to me as a researcher whether the bureaucrats interfering and attempting to “direct” my research are from the university bureaucracy or from the government bureaucracy. In other words, the discussion of “autonomy” never seems to get to the level where actual autonomy should be located: at the level of the individual researcher. . . . It’s supposed to be some great tragedy if the very university presidents who constantly attempt to deny my autonomy and direct my research somehow have their autonomy of action curtailed.
Ferdinand replied as follows:
I suppose it depends whether you think research was as good 20 years ago as it is now. On the whole the nature and quality of university research, in Ireland at least, is immeasurably better now than it was back then; in the sense that there was hardly any taking place back then. I agree that the integrity and independence of researchers is important. I’m less sure about ‘autonomy’, when historically that tended to mean that you didn’t do any.
It is no doubt true that Ireland produced less research 20 years ago than it does today. But should we be so confident that the research now is “better”? There’s more of it, to be sure, but is more better?
It is, however, false to say that nobody did any research 20 years ago. People were doing plenty of research when I came here close to twenty years ago. Probably enough research. Since then, the pressure to publish has increased (the more frenetically and thoughtlessly, the better), but I can’t say that the quality of the research is any better as a result. In my field, I’d say it’s worse. And quality is all that matters when it comes to scholarship and research. Quantity matters not at all. The only reason people care about quantity is because they are unable to judge quality.
The era where someone like Wittgenstein or Turing or Sraffa could be allowed the time to come up with truly important contributions is now gone. Today, his head of Department or Dean would be on his case to “publish more.” More’s the pity. Indeed, what suffers in this current dispensation is precisely the only thing that matters: quality, insight, ultimately genius. Is there any field of human endeavour where greater quantity results in greater quality? I think not. The best cuisine is not produced by McDonald’s. But this plank of contemporary ideology—productivism—is utterly foreign to intellectual life. It is an illegitimate importation from the world of business. It models the production of intellectual work along the lines of the production of interchangeable widgets.
If someone is not inclined to do research (or not yet inclined), what exactly is gained by forcing them to do it (now)? Here’s an unspoken fact: most research is pointless make-work and most “researchers” have nothing of interest to say or contribute (even though none of them believe that they are among that group!). The managerialist insistence on ferreting out the “dossers” and cracking the whip on them exacerbates this situation by forcing those not so inclined to engage in make-work or “perish.”
You can act as if this situation is somehow the fault of the researchers and that all of our universities should be staffed with nothing but active researchers with important contributions to make. That supposes that there is an ample supply of real researchers who have important contributions to make in every field and that, if only we got rid of the “dossers,” we’d have universities filled with nothing but the justifiably active. There isn’t such a supply. The vast majority of “researchers” should not be doing research (or “research”) and all you do by insisting that they churn out such “research” is superadd to the quantity of important research an extra mountain of unimportant research.
As for the particular pathology of Irish society whereby everyone attempts to get away with whatever they can: you won’t change it by assuming that everyone is always attempting to get away with whatever they can. You’ll reinforce it. You especially won’t change it if you assume that it is true even about the areas where people aren’t trying to get away with anything but have a real vocation for what they do. Instead of making that assumption, you should have confidence in your hiring procedures (and if they are inadequate, fix them) to get the best possible people for the jobs and then let them do those jobs. If they show promise, give them tenure and let them at it. And if it is their expert judgement that what they have to contribute to scholarship is modest (or even nonexistent) but that they really are very enthusiastic about teaching young people, it is not the place of anyone else to say otherwise and insist that they really must have something else to say. Like the forced confessions produced by waterboarding, the forced publications of academics in this situation will necessarily be worthless.
In any case it is rare in this day and age that someone who has managed to overcome all the obstacles to getting an academic job will not be dedicated to teaching or research or both. Too many sacrifices (including the sacrifice of potential income while in graduate school) are demanded along that path for any but the most dedicated to persist. But insisting that they do research under threat of sanction serves no one and certainly doesn’t serve humanity.
The next step contemplated by those who feel more whip-cracking is needed, then, is to start revoking tenure. That is also a mistake that, in addition to making it very difficult for Irish universities to recruit internationally also, again, results in nothing but the production of reams of make-work. Worse, it results in reams of make-work evincing nothing but groupthink because going out on a limb and doing research that might not be “successful” and have only negative findings will never be justifiable in the narrow sort of cost-benefit thinking that such an arrangement would impose.
All this is to say that on these matters Ireland and the UK and some parts of the US (although, notably, not the best private institutions) are going exactly the wrong way in their university policy. The old ways served us well and the burden of proof should be on those insisting that they be changed. Tell us in what way the achievements of university research in the 20th century were inadequate. Yes, a lecturer somewhere could conceivably have been getting away with something. But redesigning the entire institution to avert that possibility is perverse in the extreme and we will all be the poorer for it.