The good news began for the higher education sector with the removal of The Fixer as Overlord. Now it looks like the majority of academics will get further good news if the prime minister gets his way.
A report this week said Malcolm Turnbull wants to end the "publish or perish" culture in universities. For those of you who don’t know, that particular culture is used as a mechanism to beat people over the head for not writing academic journal articles especially for top-tiered journals. No other publishing really matters; and it’s the journal articles which attract the funding dollars.
It works like this: it doesn’t matter what else you do in an academic setting – if you don’t publish, you are damned. But academics – the people who guide you through the process of getting a degree – are meant to do three things in their working lives.
They are meant to teach (yippee! It’s the best!), they are meant to engage with the outside world (also good! How else do you understand how the world works and then parlay that understanding to your students?) and research. And that’s the tricky one.
Research is meant to be about uncovering new knowledge – and at its best, that’s what it does. It delivers thinking that can change our lives; or give us a new approach to life. It delivers or interprets new evidence or it brings us new concepts. It reinterprets the past and gives us a new way of thinking about the future. The very best research has the power to change our lives. And if you are a really good researcher AND a really good academic writer, you may publish your work in a journal that everyone knows about.
Here’s why the current obsession with research publications is a problem. Much – I’d guess the vast majority – of work published by academics doesn’t feed change. It actually doesn’t feed much. And even if you’ve discovered something brilliant in the course of your research, it’s still tough to get it published.
After research, the academic writes it up. It gets published. And then, in many cases, that work is never ever seen again. No-one cites it; and that’s particularly true if you are a junior academic.
We can hardly hope to have academics always to research and then produce work which matters. But the model proposed by the prime minister offers academics another way of participating – and that’s being part of a collaboration with communities, with commerce.
As Fairfax reported earlier this week, in 2013, Australia ranked last in the developed world on the proportion of businesses which collaborate with research institutions on innovation.
One way we could fix that is to recognise academics who do just that; and then get universities to honour that work. But getting the universities themselves to acknowledge that collaboration and what stems from it is just as important as writing for the Journal of Egg Theory will be a tougher gig. The culture will be really difficult to shift and unlikely to happen in my lifetime.
Why does collaboration with community and commerce matter? A year ago, when we were battling the ludicrous Pyne “reforms”, an acquaintance told me that universities were finally getting what they deserved. This was a person with two degrees whose privilege had tripled as a result of his tertiary education.
But if universities had deeper connections with the community and with commerce, all those outsiders who critique what we do, would get some real insight into what goes on; and how universities transform lives.