Universities ‘must prioritise academic mission’

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Academic senates would have as much power as university executives under an “ethical framework” proposed by a fledgling professional association of Australian academics.

University leaders would be judged using different key performance indicators to those that prevail now, with purely commercial metrics – such as targets to increase fee-paying international enrolments – only acceptable if they did not undermine the core “academic mission”. Academics would debate issues relevant to their areas of expertise “with intellectual integrity” and “without fear of sanction”, and their research would be shielded from “outside interference” by “powerful” government, commercial or managerial interests.

Academics would also be free to make “pragmatic” decisions to align their research with “the realities of internal priorities and external funding bodies”. This is the juggling act outlined in a “Professional ethical framework for Australian academics” which has been circulated for feedback from the country’s tutors, lecturers and professors.

The document says academics’ overriding obligation is to their profession. It says that academic boards and senates must “provide balance to the executive power”, acknowledging that this is perhaps most difficult for people with feet in both camps.

“Academic leaders often also hold formal roles in university management hierarchy which may present conflicting demands,” it says. “Their challenge is to balance the external demands on – and viability of – the university, without compromising the underlying values of the profession.”

The framework was approved in July by the council of the Australian Association of University Professors (AAUP) following an eight-month drafting process. John Kenny, convenor of the working party that produced it, said it had been conceived as a voluntary rather than “binding” document.

“Ultimately, we’d like to see it adopted by the academic profession as almost like a Hippocratic oath,” said Dr Kenny, associate professor of science education at the University of Tasmania.

“It’s strange that we educate all the other professions but we don’t have a professional statement of our own. This has left academia exposed because it’s essentially a collection of individuals and there’s no clear professional identity.”

The framework identifies “the expectation to be scholarly” as “the key factor that distinguishes academia from other professions”. Dr Kenny said that this expectation was rarely defined at the individual academic level. “We’ve tried to do drill down into that,” he said. “[It is more] than just research and winning grants. There’s a lot of scholarly work that goes on around that.”

The AAUP, which was formed in 2019, ultimately plans to consult on the framework with the “broader higher education community” including government, representative bodies, industry and university management. Dr Kenny said that the document had been drafted flowing extensive reviews of research into academic leadership and the role of universities.

A journal article on the research findings is currently under review. “Everything in the framework is backed up by research in the paper,” he said.

Dr Kenny said the research had shown that universities became more effective when academic leaders had a voice in administrative decisions. But while regulatory standards recognised a “dual leadership model”, academic leadership had been “essentially downgraded to quality assurance” with no say on finances, senior appointments or policy settings.

Changing this would introduce “tensions”, he acknowledged. “We’re saying, set up governance processes [that] expect tensions to happen and deal with those tensions to find the best outcomes.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com



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