Sunday, October 02, 2011

Transitioning Australian Academics to the On-line World

The report "The Australian academic profession in transition:
Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work
and regenerating the academic workforce
" by Emmaline Bexley, Richard James and Sophie Arkoudis was released in September 2011. This was commissioned by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to find out what academics in Australian institutions think of their work and careers. While this is well conducted research, the questions asked did not take into account the changes the Internet is causing to the way university are run and so the results are of limited value for formulating policy.

The report is available as a 4 Mbyte, 101 page file. Unfortunately as the file is in PDF format and has cipyright rescrictions, it is dioffult to read and use.

There are no great surprises in the findings of the report. Scholars are found to be mainly motivated in their work by a passion for knowledge, not material gain. But early career academics are unhappy with job security and income. Later career academics feel stressed due to overwork. The result is that many acadmeics are considering moving overseas or out of academia.

The report goes on to suggest twelve principles for a national approach to higher education, in four categories:

A. National approach to higher education
1. Stability in higher education policy directions benefits workforce planning.
2. There is a need to establish better pre-conditions for more stable forms of employment.
3. Institutions should be cautious about replicating national funding formulae at the academic unit level.
4. Support for early career academics should be made a national priority.
5. A better understanding of the nature of sessional and short-term academic work is needed.
B. Research-teaching nexus and the status of teaching
6. The primacy of the research-teaching nexus in the work of universities should be maintained.
7. Appropriate career pathways and promotion opportunities for teaching-specialist academic work should be ubiquitous across the sector.
C. Human resources policies within institutions
8. A more sophisticated distribution of academic work roles than the conventional classification of teaching-only, teaching-and-research and research-only positions is needed.
9. The casualisation of academic work needs to be reversed, and sessional and short-term contract staff load shifted to longer term and ongoing forms of employment.
D. Further specialisation and professionalisation in university leadership and administration
10. A better understanding of the nature and extent of administration activities associated with national and institutional benchmarking and quality audit requirements is needed.
11. There is a need for the development of a new and specialised kind of professional staff.
12. Further professional development is needed at senior levels for academic staff moving into department and faculty leadership roles.
Of most interest to me, as an adjunct lecturer, was the discussion of "casualisation" of the academic workforce, in principles two and nine, sessional and short-term academic work in principle five. As a casual staff member I do feel a little undervalued at times. But the solution to this is not to make me a full time staff member: I don't want to be. The solution is to acknolodge the distinct contribution such people can make to the university.

Like much of the higher education sector, the authors of this report appear to assume that the way universities work will remain unchanged in the face of the revolution which the Internet is creating in business. It is assumed that most academics will be physically located on a university campus of the institution employing them, in the country where the university is based. This also assumes the people the academic is carrying out the research with will be physically collocated with them and the students will also be physically present.

For many in academia, the institution has already moved to the virtual world: colleagues and students can be anywhere in the world. Also academic work can be partly absed in the unviersity and partly in industry.

While the answers Bexley, James and Arkoudis have come up with are good ones, for the wrong questions. Australian universities need to prepare for this century, not the previous one. The issues to address are around support for staff who will mostly be part time and based in industry, stuidntes who will be mostly part time and on-line and how to compete and cooperate with universities around the world.

I suggest the one principle which Austrlaian unviersities need to adopt is that they are just a small part of the world and that they need to go out and engage with their staff, their students and the community in general. One way to do this is to set up university processes so that as much as possible can be done by staff, students and the community, without having to set foot on a campus.

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