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What’s Wrong With Academia: Part 5

By: , Posted on: January 2, 2019

The overemphasis on research so academia is a well-ploughed furrow for me. I have written about it many times in the context of engineering education. I have pointed out repeatedly that research is overemphasized in academia; that the idea that the purpose of the university is research is a recent idea; that the idea that a good researcher makes a good teacher is not borne out by research.

It is my contention that the only reason why research has become so emphasized is that research is what makes for high university rankings, and promotions for the individuals who work there. No-one gets promoted for excellence in teaching, and being head of department is far more often a sign of being a failed or spent researcher than an excellent administrator. Research track record is all that matters.

This is true to the extent that a PhD graduate has no hope of being taken on as a lecturer unless they already have the research profile of someone who has spent several years as a post-doctoral researcher. I have been told time and again that universities I worked at could not find suitable candidates to fill junior lecturing positions when they had roomfuls of postdocs and PhDs who would kill for a lecturing post. When I asked why they did not take on their own PhDs and postdocs, I was told that they did not have the research track record.

But what does it take to have such a record? A professor with a research group can get their name on every paper the group produces, irrespective of any contribution they may have made. They may even continue to publish papers after they are dead. But at the start, you may find it difficult to get your name featured prominently on the papers you actually wrote. There is an odious system of patronage in academia. Those professors who get their names on every paper may not be being entirely self-interested.  Names matter, as do connections. Getting the right name on your paper, and having your patron work their contacts for you is key to getting your paper in high impact journals, which is in turn key to getting a lecturing position, and getting promoted once you are there.

The power this gives the patrons means that they can get PhD students to work on projects unrelated to their PhDs, free of charge (even when the patron charges others for this time). The patron can get their students to do their teaching and admin for them, if the university allows it. The patron can get their name put on papers they had virtually nothing to do with, to keep their own research profile high. I have not spent that long in academia but I have seen all of these things many times in different universities. Why does no-one complain? Because the patron has the power to stop a whistle-blower’s career advancement, and those who run the complaints procedure within a university are themselves the products of this system. It seems to them to be right, and they have personally benefitted from it.

So-called peer review is also run by those who have benefitted from a system which seemed to me on many occasions, as an introduced outsider, both archaic and corrupt. Peer review is therefore applied lightly to insiders, and harshly to outsiders. It arguably serves more to prevent novel thought than to promote it, and has been shown to work against women, ethnic minorities, new researchers, and those with views counter to the unexamined prejudices of those who dispense patronage. True peer review would work the same when blinded, so that researchers could not be identified, but that is not what numerous studies show. Most recently, Nature has revealed an apparent bias against women and non-westerners as peer reviewers, journal editors and last authors of studies.

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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