Universities are losing on points

Hazel Rowley, The Australian, December 1996


FORGET the passion, embrace the ‘accountable.’ Welcome to today’s academe.

“Delightful as the pastime of measuring may be,” writes Virginia Woolf, “it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes.” She scorns the idea of “some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve”.

These days, it’s government administrators who wield the rod.

I’ve been an academic for 12 years. I’m a senior lecturer in literary studies. Research, writing and teaching is what I do best; it’s my passion. And I’ve just taken what they call an “early retirement package”.

Why? The new regime is so opposed to the spirit of free inquiry and reflection, imagination or challenge, that it is no longer possible to think creatively, let alone stretch oneself to the limit of one’s intellectual capacity. The word from our leaders is loud and clear: “I don’t care what you publish. Just publish.” God knows who’s going to do the reading.

Morale among academics is so low that I often wonder how some institutions manage to stay afloat. A question I have not once been asked by any of my colleagues is: “Why are you leaving?” Instead, it’s: “Lucky you. If I could, I’d be out of this place tomorrow.”

Almost everything I used to respect about universities has been dismantled in the past few years. With unnerving rapidity. The excellent teacher commands no respect in the academy at all. Ironically, this is at a time when we are keener than ever to attract “clients” to our smartly marketed job-specific courses.

The humanities are devalued because they don’t “train” students for a specific job. But what about learning to think analytically, read critically, and express yourself creatively and cogently? These skills raise the whole level of literacy and debate in our society; they determine the quality of our newspapers and magazines, radio and television programs. And the quality of our readers and audiences.

Ah, nostalgia! When I was an undergraduate, none of my arts faculty friends had much idea what we were going to do “afterwards”. I remember, as a fresher, feeling confused and exhilarated by the university handbook, bulging with interesting courses (presumably long since “rationalized”). An academic adviser, a man towards whom I feel warm gratitude to this day, said to me: “You can’t go wrong if you follow your interests. It’s passion that counts. And hard work.” There aren’t many of us who would dare to talk about passion these days.

Students now have minimal contact with staff. Classes are painfully overcrowded and tutorials as I once knew them (seven or eight in a group) scarcely exist anywhere. At postgraduate level, we supervise far too many students. There’s no time for pastoral care or real intellectual exchange.

Staff don’t have much contact with each other, either. Nobody turns up to seminars anymore. We give each other a frazzled nod as we pass in the corridors.

Most people would agree that universities need to be evaluated somehow and that research performance is an obvious indicator of excellence. The problem is, how do you measure research? The criteria clearly have to be intelligent. The federal Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs and the Australian Research Council have come up with an extraordinary yardstick. And the funds are doled out accordingly.

In the area of research, the calculation of government funding to universities is based on two criteria; research input (grants or other private or public sector funding) and research output (publications).: This year, research input was weighted at 82.5 per cent and output at 12.5 per cent. (The other 5 per cent is for the completion of higher degrees.)

The emphasis on input severely disadvantages the arts faculty. There are few grants available for humanities and they are based on criteria that apply more appropriately to science.

ARC grants are given only for collaborative research — and preferably, we are told, the collaboration is to be across disciplines, across universities and across countries. So you have the ludicrous situation of historians, philosophers, literary scholars and so on having to think up projects that require teamwork. The cynical truth is that all too often university research is being shaped by the funding criteria rather than the other way around.

Since publications make up only 12 per cent of government funding, a thick book (perhaps five years’ work) brings you far less prestige than an ARC grant (applications usually take a week to prepare). The fact is, an ARC grant brings substantial money to the university as well as to the scholars involved in the project.

At my university, the arts faculty is well in front of the other faculties in terms of publication output but, because we are not as richly rewarded with grants, we are constantly told that we are “behind the eight-ball” when it comes to research and that we must perform better.

No consideration is given to earning capacity, yet the simple fact is that the humanities never have been — and never will be — able to generate income like science and technology can. If we accept that both partners in a marriage rarely have the same earning capacity, I believe there is a good case for universities to subsidize their arts faculties. We have other strengths, other things to offer the university and community.

However, an argument like this goes down like a lead balloon in today’s economic rationalist world and, as it stands, the research funds within the university are distributed (like a marriage gone sour) to those who “earned” them.

Publication — books and articles — might account for only 12 per cent of the total income generated, but nevertheless this provides an excellent opportunity to demoralise and humiliate academics. These days, my university grades us individually (like eggs), according to our DEETYA point score. Recently we were issued with a list of arts faculty staff, with points beside names — and some names left off. This controversial document is called the Active Researchers List. You need to score three points a year to be classified as active.

The DEETYA scoring system is crude, to put it politely. You are allotted one point for a chapter in an academic book and one for an academic article in a scholarly refereed journal (where an editorial board sends out your article for peer review). You get 0.5 for a review in a refereed journal (the Icelandic Journal of French Studies, say) and 0.2 for a review or an article in a journal or newspaper that people actually read, such as The New York Review of Books.

This effectively discourages the public intellectual and ensures that academics write only for their colleagues.

Five points are awarded for a “substantial” academic book — a scholarly one, that is, with footnotes. “Substantial” means around 80 pages or more. It doesn’t take academics long to do their sums: one is a fool to write a thick book. No credit is given for overseas editions or translations.

For a novel you score 0.25. That’s one quarter of a DEETYA point for Ulysses and one-quarter of a point for Midnight’s Children. The fact is, were he on the staff in an English department (and many novelists in Britain and the United States are), Salman Rushdie would probably be struggling to scrape enough points together to make the Active Researchers List. In which case he would not qualify for study leave, conference leave or promotion.

Similarly, you get 0.25 for an individual collection of original art exhibited for the first time in a recognised gallery or museum (accompanied by published catalogue)) and 0.25 for a substantial musical work (minimum 20 minutes duration, recorded on CD or video for commercial distribution). But you can rustle up 0.5 by writing a brief piece on someone else’s exhibition (or novel or symphony) in a refereed journal.

Never has there been so much talk of “excellence” and “quality assurance”, and never before, in all my days as a postgraduate and academic, have I seen so little concern for either. The dean of arts at my institution proclaims that “elite researchers” should aim for six DEETYA points a year. That would mean writing 24 novels in a year, or a substantial scholarly book topped up with an academic article, or six academic articles.

Our dean, who embraces the new university, recently issued a paper called Normative Aims for the Faculty of Arts. In it he denounces the “humanistic legacy” of the “19th-century university” which aims “to develop and expand the all-sided personality of students and staff”.

“I believe,” writes the dean, “that this view of the university is based upon a tradition which is now seen to be far too elitist and individualistic.”

From now on, research in our faculty will be grouped under a handful of topics. Areas of strength will be better for grant applications. Individual research belongs to the past.

The dean acknowledges “a high level of staff frustration”. His final sentence has a particularly unsettling edge to it: “We may need to seriously consider the whole problem of pastoral care and interpersonal relations within the faculty.”

That’s the glitch for the bean counters. Humanity, just like the humanities, is a problem.


Hazel Rowley has resigned from her Australian university. She has written an award-winning biography of Christina Stead (Heinemann, 1993), also published in Britain (Seeker & Warburg) and the United States (Henry Holt). It was hailed as a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.

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