Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ron Smith: Of Politics and Scholarship

In August of 2008, the New Zealand Centre for Political Research published a review of mine on the subject of the New Zealand system of academic assessment: Performance-Based Research Funding (PBRF), and its manifest defects and absurdities*. I was reminded of this a few nights ago when I was present in the Great Hall of Parliament to see the launch of a new book, Palmer: The Parliamentary Years, by a colleague, Raymond Richards. The Palmer biography is the product of more than ten years’ work and is a substantial piece of scholarship, which has received very positive reviews and has already been nominated for a New Zealand Post Book Award. At 470 pages it is also substantial in a more literal sense. For those interested in the history of the 1984-90 Labour Government, this account of the crucial role of Sir Geoffrey Palmer, firstly, as Deputy Prime Minister and then, as Prime Minister in his own right, is absolutely essential reading.

The relevance of this to PBRF lies in the extraordinary difficulties that Richards had with his employers (the University of Waikato) over most of the time that he was working on the book. PBRF assessments are narrowly tied to an expectation that academic staff will produce a steady stream of ‘peer-reviewed’ publications, which, at its lowest manifestation, results in an apparent multiplicity of authorship, where everybody is claiming credit for everybody else’s work, but nobody is reading any of it. (There is research for all of these claims.)

PBRF isn’t set up to value long term projects, such as biography, or the sort of solitary, conceptual/speculative research that can take many years and used to be thought to be the hallmark of university scholarship. One hundred years ago, Marie Curie at the University of Paris, struggled to understand the nature of radioactivity at the same time as devising methods of separation for what we now call radioisotopes. Of course, she was successful in the end, gaining international acclaim and winning two Nobel Prizes but it is clear that she could not have survived under PBRF. Something similar might be said, for different reasons, about Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The latter, who was perhaps the most outstanding philosopher of the Twentieth Century, published almost nothing in his lifetime but was, at the same time, enormously influential.

But the problem is not simply that PBRF fails to recognise certain kinds of intellectual activity that may have a long and uncertain time-frame and because of this represents a serious disservice to scholarship. At the less lofty and more general level, it also represents a continuing injustice to staff who have their research disparaged by an administration unwilling to recognise the defects of the process. Former University of Waikato Vice-Chancellor, Wilf Malcolm, notes (in his 2007 book with Nicholas Tarling) the consequent ‘feeling of alienation’, which is utterly incompatible with the ‘proper aspirations’ of a university.

In fact PBRF provides a vehicle for the persistent disparagement of staff who do not share the ideological orientation of those in power in the institution, who can and do, utilise the processes of promotion and the allocation of study-leave and other favours, to persecute those with whom they disagree. This was the situation of Richards, whose relations with the University of Waikato resulted in personal grievance proceedings in the Labour Court, which he won.

More generally, processes of supposed ‘academic accountability’ of this kind have been subject to considerable scrutiny in recent years (especially in the United Kingdom, where the practice began) and this has shown the marginalisation of whole areas of unfashionable study and the progressive corruption of the academic enterprise, with ‘journals’ and ‘conferences’ being organised to provide assured ‘outputs’, appointments of persons, merely on the basis of their PBRF score, who do not teach (leaving the actual teaching to senior students and more junior members of the faculty) and the institutional concealment of ‘poor performers’ for the duration of the assessment period. There is also the problem of increasing plagiarism by academic staff in a desperate attempt to keep their publication numbers up.

Down through the years, I have discussed PBRF with Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro-Vice-Chancellors, Deans and administrators of the process at various levels and I have very rarely received satisfactory responses to the objections of principle that I have raised. On the other hand, PBRF continues and (according to present plans) there will be another formal round of evaluations next year. For the generality of academic staff, it may be that they support PBRF because they personally believe that they benefit from it, which, of course, is not inconsistent with an acceptance of all of its defects. They may well also think that there is nothing that they can do about it. For university administrators (Vice-Chancellors and Deans and their respective entourages) it may be that it serves as a valuable source of internal authority and external funds. None of these grounds strike this writer as sufficient to persist with a process that is enormously time-consuming, inherently unjust, and which represents a betrayal of the central principle of the university (freedom of scholarship).



Nevil Gibson said...

Excellent article, Ron. It has become much harder to get academics to write for newspapers such as ours The National Business Review) and participate in public debate, as such articles do not qualify for PBRF.
Thus the vast bulk of academics, though paid by the taxpayer, do not fulfill one of the major aims of a university. Instead, all that is published are articles that are incomprehensible and of little relevance to most people. Many academics in the business schools say they agree but can't do anything about it. This means most research on business is New Zealand is wasted and of no use.

Rosanne Hawarden said...

Excellent article. I would like to point out the increasing value of the independent mature scholar to produce the kind of knowledge that requires a long term effort. Such scholars are largely self funding but need links to universities for credibility and access to a world of serious scholars.

Being in that category myself as a successful DBA candidate (Doctorate in Business and Administration) on the plus side PBRF ensured that I got good attention from my supervisors. To ensure acceptance as a student by the best supervisors the deal was that the thesis would be published in a series of papers under joint authorship. No point in supervising students who will not contribute to PBRF rankings is there? It seemed like a good bargain and win-win for all.

Not all students will have the luxury of taking time to allow for ideas to develop as they surely do. My thesis and new theory on director networks and specifically those of women directors ie glass networks, is all the more comprehensive and innovative from taking a long time to mature.

The future Einsteins, Darwins and Wittgensteins will probably be found in the ranks of the independent scholar, as they have in the past.