Whatever

Musing on the news today that the Australian government has decided to scrap its distracting journal ranking scheme and look for other ways to tally up research quality outcomes across the sector, I found a colleague wandering the corridor and asked her what she thought. She works in a highly specialised research field, and has a strong commitment to research training right across the disciplines. This was her reaction:

“Whatever.”

And I think despite understandable levels of anger and frustration at the thought of the hours of our lives we’ll never get back, she’s right. The mass national mood is a kind of wide collective facepalm.

We’re too exhausted and annoyed even to say “I told you so.” We’re really trying not to think about the time spent writing submissions trying to correct particularly awkward misrankings, or sitting in hiring committees diligently sieving the publications of otherwise excellent entry-level junior staff through this mesh, or in meetings being told that we need get strategic about our publications in order to game the system more effectively next time, or lobbying in support of our colleagues who edit lower-ranked journals and have been trying not to lose the goodwill of their contributors, editorial boards and referees (all of whom do this gratis and therefore more or less as a favour to the future of scholarship).

And we’ve all harboured and then felt ashamed of secret anxieties about sneaking a look at journal rankings, before responding to an invitation to join a special edition or co-author a paper with an international colleague in a journal important to them that might one day be held against us.

Now it turns out that the metric that was the cause of all this distress and time forever lost to actual research was “focussing ill-informed, undesirable behaviour in the management of research” (double facepalm), so it’s in the skip bin and we’re moving on, briskly.  Nothing to see here.

And how handy that we have someone to blame. There was nothing wrong with the toy, it turns out, and no sense that it had been rushed out into the shops prematurely, it’s just that someone wasn’t playing with it appropriately, so it’s been taken away.

I suspect that once both the fury and the eye-rolling stage has passed, there will be some commentary on the fact that we have failed to greet this intervention with sufficient gratitude. Isn’t this what we wanted, all of us who thought the ranking system was unsustainable, reductive, parochial, and in many individual cases, just plain embarrassing? How come we’re all not throwing our berets in the air?

Well, one explanation for our irritation with the disingenuous announcement that this double backflip is just an enhancement of a terrifically successful process, is here.  It sits right at the heart of why there’s a sense that higher education around the world is in some kind of crisis. We’re really tired of policy formation that is “erratic and often very badly explained” and the result of this over a long period is “a kind of raw nervousness in the academic community”, that manifests as hostility, and that can then too easily be dismissed as blind opposition to change of any stripe.

But we too have something to lose here if we give up altogether on the prospect of change that is progressive and intending to achieve good outcomes. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who I’m now clearly stalking, has some thoughts that are useful as we work out our own responsibility for the public conversation on higher education in Australia:

The main reason why I suspect we are not living in a golden age of higher education debate is because very little of whatever debate we are having is actually about education. It’s about means, resources, processes, institutions, regulations and controls; it’s not about knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship. The tetchiness of the exchanges is prompted by the inadequacy of the subject matter. The grandeur of education is being stuffed into a budget envelope. This is as true of the academic contributions as it is of government policies. We need to raise our sights, and more than a little, and need to rediscover some sense of the potential of higher education in its real mission.

Yes, we do.

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