Is there a need for research focii?

For almost 10 years now I have been hearing within higher education things like

esults will be used to compel institutions into focusing their research efforts instead of employing the scattergun comprehensive approach that is the norm.

. This particular quote is taken from this article from the Australian newspaper. It does, however, mirror an idea – perhaps an idea taken to far – that is increasingly endemic throughout the sector. Just today I hear of a new leader of a discipline-based “School” (a collection of academics teaching a particular discipline) echoing this same mantra.

The idea is that if there are a limited number of focii for research within a school or university, then there will be more world-class research. Which is deemed very important given the proposition that

MORE than two-thirds of Australia’s universities have an overall research performance that doesn’t reach international benchmarks

The rationale is that research takes money, there isn’t much money, so it can’t be spread around, therefore it would be better to focus and fund a small number of areas of research. The consequence of this is that most of the academics involved should seek to focus on those focii and consequently increase the quality of the research.

This may work in some contexts. I’m not convinced it’s a strategy that can work in most contexts. Seems likely to create a number of consequences with significantly worse implications for the higher education sector. Lastly, it also seems to avoid one of the unspoken truths about university research.

Few academics do research, the focus is already in

My personal observations from one Australian institution – ranked very low in various ERA related league tables currently doing the rounds – is that very few of the academics I was working with did research. The vast majority of the annual “publication points” for most organisational units were down to a handful of the academic staff.

After a quick google I turned up this page on research publications from Griffith University. It offers support for the proposition that my anecdotal evidence may be indicative of a broader trend. It suggests that in 2000, 44% of the academics within Australian universities did not publish. It also shows that at some institutions the figure was 70% and above.

It would be interesting to see more recent figures. I don’t imagine publication rates have increased significantly, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve reduced.

This highlights the biggest frustration I had with working at the institution. The almost complete and utter absence of a scholarly culture. The idea of a research culture was complete absent. What’s worse is that I think the repercussions from this latest ranking exercise will only decrease the chances of building a scholarly culture.

Task corruption and inhibiting a scholarly culture

It is my proposition that limiting research to a limited number of focii – forcing academics to move into areas of research in which they aren’t interested – is not going to encourage the formation of a research culture. Instead it is going to reinforce the existing imbalance and result in task corruption. I’m going to borrow some content from that post.

Task corruption is defined as

where either an institution or individual, conciously or unconsciously, adopts a process or an approach to a primary task that either avoids or destroys the task

and is illustrated well by this Dilbert cartoon (click on the cartoon to see it larger).

Dilbert.com

It is possible to point to evidence of a number of universities and individuals adopting the Director of Marketecture’s adage “It is better to seem good than to be good.” i.e. adopting practices more likely to make the institution appear good from an ERA perspective, rather than addressing the underpinning problems with the scholarly culture of the institution.

Apart from the very obvious strategies of luring a “big name” and his/her research group to an institution, there are various other strategies being adopted. One example might be an Associate Dean Research using her position to funnel all the potential good post-graduate students enquiring about research into her research group, rather than into others. When researchers become concerned about their own perceived contribution, the scholarly culture at an institution does not improve.

Why the absence of a scholarly culture?

There are lots of contributing factors. I talked about some of those factors in a post about the demise of the ALTC. There are many more.

In summary, I’d argue that the context for most universities is not conducive creating a scholarly culture. Creating such a culture is hard and takes a long time. Which is not something a new VC or DVC (Research) has on a five year contract. Easier to make the standard measurable, task corruption-like steps. And when it doesn’t work blame the academics, but not the system or processes.

Teaching/Research nexus, research focii and quality teaching

One question I haven’t heard mentioned a great deal is the question of how do you balance three currently important, but apparently incompatible, buzzwords: teaching/research nexus, research focii and quality teaching?

Establishing research focii is all about narrowing down what topics are research to a very small set of areas. A document from the University of Melbourne lists 9 approaches to encouraging teaching/research nexus. Three of those include:

  • drawing on personal research in designing and teaching courses;
  • placing the latest research in the field within its historical context in classroom teaching;
  • designing learning activities around contemporary research issues;

The idea of research focii suggest that the number of research areas is likely to be significantly smaller than the collection of areas required for a typical under-graduate degree.

If the research focii approach is actually successful, than you could assume that research productivity would increase, hopefully significantly. This might cause problems with the quality of teaching. For example, whenever an obviously research active academic was employed by my old department, there was an assumption (almost always borne out) that their teaching would be somewhat rudimentary. The University of Melbourne document from above refers to a review of research by Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) into the effects of research on college education in the USA. The Uni Melbourne folk write

Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) concluded that most studies actually suggest an inverse relationship between research productivity and teaching quality — as least as this is measured by student satisfaction surveys. A likely explanation for this pattern is that students tend to regard the availability of academic staff as very important, and that availability is likely to be restricted in research-intensive institutions. If this is the case, academics with strong research interests and extensive research programs may have to consciously work to compensate for the constraints on the time they have available for individual students.

Encouraging quality teaching and research within universities is complex – in the sense of Dave Snowden’s children’s party story in the video below. It is something that requires a holistic approach. One that doesn’t separate teaching and research into separate organisational reporting lines. One that recognises that the ERA and associated strategies are techno-rational/simple strategies that are ill-suited to the task, but well suited to responding to simplistic targets through task corruption.

As a result, I don’t think there is a need for research focii, at least not if your aim is to develop a true scholarly culture.

References

Pascarella, E.T. and Terenzini, P.T. (2005) How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research, Volume 2.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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