Should unproductive academics be made redundant?

Sydney Morning Herald, April 14, 2012. Read the original here.

How to assess academic productivity? At Sydney University, the question couldn’t be more relevant: in November, management announced that it had made a serious budgetary mistake and would slash underperforming staff in order to pursue IT and building improvements. Although officially, research is only 40 per cent of academics’ responsibilities, management retrospectively introduced a new performance test, just to purge staff. Anyone who hadn’t published at least four articles in less than three years was threatened. This basic violation of natural justice was astonishing, particularly from managers who continually profess their commitment to high-minded, progressive values.

Like other workplaces, universities have performance management processes. These, not redundancy, are the answer to underperformance. But how to respond to a failure of management?

The cuts have provoked an outcry. With its simplistic measures, how will Sydney maintain research quality, when the finest researchers couldn’t possibly teach and publish consistently at the rate administrators demand? How can management sack staff with classrooms already so crowded?

Sydney’s administrators have not been so different from their counterparts elsewhere. Administrators everywhere are trying to shrink their already overstretched academic workforces. Universities, apparently, just don’t need academics.

Talk of values such as productivity serves to justify managers’ failure to promote the conditions necessary for universities to function. Local managerialism is the polar opposite of world’s best practice – such as in the US Ivy League – and shows parallels with the disastrous financialisation of the global economy.

University technocrats are the equivalent of the regulators whose negligence caused the GFC. Just as markets favoured complex financial instruments far removed from commodities, so too universities have been alienated from their basic rationale by an ascendancy of executives hostile to the principles that should govern academic communities: respect for students and staff; research unfettered by philistine ”productivity” requirements; security of academic tenure; uncasualised labour; low student-staff ratios. These are the ways to guarantee academic “productivity”, rather than its bureaucratic substitutes.

It is the managers who are unproductive. Systemic managerial failures are compromising quality.

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