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Keeping pace with changing times
When people think about academia, many assume its purpose is for the improvement of society. Most probably also think the art of teaching must be central to this and to what an academic does at a university. And for many of us, teaching is something we value deeply.
Sadly the public university system across the world has been transformed greatly in the neo-liberal order—an economic time of profits before people, personal achievement before public development, and grade tables over real understanding. This is a statement of fact, and to stay alive in such a climate all universities have had to adapt to these new times.
Unfortunately that means to concentrate intensely on good teaching today is now considered by many as a hindrance to career advancement. Research, and the dissemination of findings, are advised to be the central purpose of being an academic—not to mention the primary criteria for promotion.
As such, the quality of classroom teaching has declined. Younger scholars are pushed to concentrate on a publish-or-perish paradigm in peer-reviewed journals inaccessible to the general public locked behind subscription paywalls.
This does not mean doing research isn’t important. Of course it is. Rather, spending lots of taxpayers’ money on research and then publishing it in venues the public cannot reach is a mishandling of the original public role and purpose of academia. From the point of view of young academics, another failure of these new economic times is the shortage of mentors and collegiality.
That is not to say there are not good mentors and there is no collegiality, but that such things no longer exist in the abundance they once did. And before anyone thinks this is a stab at UWI, the situation I describe is the same in the US and British systems. It is the result of new economic priorities at the heart of university administrations around the world.
With the Lance Armstrong gangsterism model of advancement (me first and to hell with the consequences for everyone else) now dominating the western university system, and western societies more generally, a class system has emerged within academic university staff.
Younger members of staff, alongside those with part-time contracts, are forced to take on workloads that curtail their professional advancement. They are the bottom, disposable and overworked class. Many fall into such a situation willingly, blinded by altruistic ideas of academia. Those with more experience at the academic career game often see this altruism as naivety.
The advice is often that to do more than what is most important for one’s own career is to commit career suicide. Obviously this isn’t the case for advice offered by all senior staff but it is the dominant viewpoint, the loudest voice one hears.
The voices for social change, the improvement of society, the voices that challenge the orthodox point of view are nowhere as loud or numerous.
This in itself should be a worry. If the ethos and essence of public education is primarily personal career advancement and economic profits then the traditional ideals at the heart of the university system both here and around the world have died. Now, in one sense this is simply a stab at the status quo and saying, “I don’t like the way things are.”
But in another sense how things are in the present determines how things will be in the future. We already have school and exam systems designed to reward students for regurgitation of information rather than independent, critical thinking. It is so bad that some students in primary and secondary schools are taught to remember essays word for word for exams, rather than learn material to be able to write essays by themselves.
At universities, the majority of students don’t care about thinking skills; they care about grades. This isn’t their fault; it is what we teach them is most important. Our university system in a similar light is forcing young academics to support a system of careerism first and societal development only rarely. Yet if everything is based on grade tables and numerical scores, the art of thinking—the essence of learning itself—is destroyed.
The simple question then becomes: what sort of world do you think such a system will contribute to? We are lucky to have UWI and UTT. Free tertiary education is a rare gift in today’s world. And while our universities have to function within a global economy, we need to stop imitating others and be self-confident enough to lead.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine.
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