What does an academic actually do and do they have any useful function in society today? This is a question I’ve been asking about myself 30 years into my academic career.
It’s not a mid-life crisis, at least so far as I can tell. I haven’t bought a Harley Davidson. Yet.
New Zealand universities are facing serious budget shortfalls, dwindling domestic enrolments, and catastrophic international student declines. My employer engaged in a cost-cutting restructure which I survived, only to find out they botched it so badly they had to re-employ everyone they sacked. We will start the process again mid-year. The University of Otago announced staff cuts will be in the several hundreds, Massey, Auckland, Victoria and Lincoln have already been and are in these processes. Only Canterbury has somehow shown growth. Overall the sector is in trouble in New Zealand. It’s the same in Australia.
For most of my career I was in love with the “university” and the role it had in society. I’m gutted now to have lost that love.
I think I lost my love because we no longer deliver on the most important part of what we promised to do. We are no longer the “critic and conscience of society”.
It used to be that we were free to pursue the role that I think academics have in society. That is to conduct quality science, engage in robust public and scientific debate in our fields with a broad mandate of making the world a better place, and moving knowledge forward for the betterment of humankind.
Overall, I’d say I’ve done okay. I’ve published hundreds of scientific papers, written some books, bought lots of research funding, graduated students, including many masters and doctoral students, and made myself a public profile which influenced practice.
I’ve had something to say and I’ve said it.
Being an academic seems like a stellar lifestyle, and it is. Who wouldn’t want to have the privilege of all this? Freedom, but with full knowledge that challenge to anything I said was part of the deal. Other academics also knew that I would challenge them. Universities were places where you came for debate, controversy, and differences of opinions. It’s a fight the public are welcome to join as well.
Academics can and often are high in disagreeableness. I am.
Not disagreeable in a personal ad hominem way, but a robust, often fiery discussion about what-the-facts-really-are sort of way. This jousting comes with all sorts of thorns, but at the end of the day scientists changing their minds as new ideas come up has been and must be the future if we want, to advance the human and planetary condition. You could and would be offended in these discussions, nothing surer. Feelings were hurt, egos battered, pride swallowed.
Our role has never been, nor should it be, to have political views left or right. My view has been that we are radical centrists. A radical centrist will judge all views on evidence. We train the next generation to do the same.
I want to let you know if you haven’t set foot in a New Zealand university recently, or as most of us these days attend a Zoom or Teams meeting on a University account, then you might not be aware that we are no longer a place for debate. We are no longer centrists. We have drifted to the political left, way left. And that leftist view, which has many merits and many downfalls, cannot be debated with impunity. We are strong on virtue signaling. We are strong on stating opinions rather than facts. We are weak on confrontation, but strong on behind-the-scene bullying.
Academia’s COVID response is a great example of how we transitioned. The wholesale canceling of fundamental human rights around vaccine mandates without robust arguments, let alone sufficient evidence caused more harm than benefit.
Who knows what writing this will actually mean for me, but it has been written, and it must be. I’m way nearer the end than the start of my career. I could stop tomorrow and I will be immensely proud of what I achieved. But I would be ashamed, embarrassed, and most of all not me if I failed to disagree with the elephants in the lecture halls and labs of our universities right now.
We have a culture where debate is refused on principle because someone else doesn’t like your view. You might “trigger” or “offend” someone. And this is true, in robust open societies where debate is raging, people are triggered and offended all the time.
There are guard rails in place. This is called the law. We have a legal framework to make sure of this.
My point is that a free, fair and open society has a requirement for hard-on-the-facts debates. We need them everywhere, all the time. Science literally cannot advance without this. Neither can society.
I’m here to tell you that this is no longer what is happening in our universities.
The cancel culture and avoiding debate about issues of race, health, fairness, economic policy, and much more is now endemic in university culture. The great irony is that universities may end up inadvertently canceling themselves.
It used to be that you needed access to a university to have access to knowledge. We were the purveyors and keepers of this knowledge. That’s no longer true – anyone with curiosity can access all of humanity through their cell phone, listen to podcasts, and learn from YouTube.
We offer courses of little substance over actual substantial content, at least some of the time. I overheard my oldest son who recently finished a degree talk with his mates about the 24 courses he had taken over three years. As he listed them off, he categorised them as “good” or “lame”. In his opinon, half the courses fell into the lame category. He was considering going on to a Masters’ degree but didn’t because he reckoned that the debt wasn’t worth it, he wouldn't learn much anyway, he was learning more on the Huberman Lab podcast, and half the courses were “irrelevant”. I don’t disagree.
With all the news of declining student numbers, we recently had a curriculum restructure day. We wheeled out some past students who only say good things about the degree. We rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, and leave, congratulating ourselves on our team work and how we run the best program, with the best people, and that everyone needs to work a bit harder to tell young people about how awesome our degree is.
The point is we are laughably out of touch with reality. We have annoyed a solid section of society. I reckon about half of society, maybe more. Everyone from the center to right politically. That’s because we have taken political, not scientific positions.
If there is a future for the university going forward, then we need to change. Not back to what we were, but forwards to the role in the world we will play. Here’s what I think is going to need to change:
1/ Many young adults aren’t ready to go straight into the workforce, nor in fact to come to uni. They need extra skills. Many need more literacy because our school system is failing at this. I’m not sure on its own this is any reason for us to exist. We aren’t the place to teach basic literacy. Primary and secondary education needs to have achieved close to 100% literacy and numeracy. Then many can go straight into the workforce, and those who are ready and see value can come to university.
2/ We do need to train professionals and will clearly continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I’m thinking of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists, engineers, and many more. The cost of this should be a shared burden on society (public and individual). But it is the responsibility of universities to provide value for money. My view is that we have lost control over spending money on what matters. We are overcapitalised with expensive real estate. The under-use of university buildings is astonishing. Walk into any university department on a Friday afternoon and it’s a ghost town. Actually any day it’s a ghost town, the working at home - if at all - phenomena will be on stark display. It was bad before COVID, now it’s a comedy. Single person offices have been gone in the real world for decades. They are still the norm at universities.
3/ On value, I wonder how many would actually be prepared to hand the money over if the full cost in cash was on the student. Fees only represent a small proportion of the actual money the university gets for a student enrolment form the Tertiary Education Commission. I reckon if the full cost was put on students virtually no one would think it was value for money. Yet that money still comes from all of us. If a student had to pay the actual cash directly to the university proportionally after every interaction with the university it would be so laughably bad value. We’d all be gone right away. The fact that the private sector can offer decent alternatives for a fraction of the cost but without the university parchment and stamp of approval should be a clue that we can and must do much better.
4/ Continuing on cost, and being divorced from reality, the New Zealand universities have a full cost model of funding research. That means 133% overheads on researcher salary costs. No private research business would ever be considered seriously in such a cost arrangement. They’d just be laughably overpriced. Yes, some research is really expensive, and critical infrastructure needs to be funded. We need a better system for universities to find the money.
5/ We should not shy away from restructuring and reinvention. The world changes and so must we. It’s great that we expand when times are good, but contraction when needed is the way the rest of the world outside academia works. Our management has become increasingly expensive over the past few decades. This should be the first target, but sadly is the first area declared “out of scope” by those with the obvious conflict of interest. We will need to rethink what offices, lecture halls, and campuses look like. We have lots of real estate. Do we still need it all?
6/ These managers must understand that continued growth in student numbers isn’t a sustainable business plan. We will be better served to be fit for purpose. But first we need to have a purpose.
7/ If we can offer value, have a clear purpose in society, then young people want to come and learn and are ready to learn. It’s obvious that the current arrangement for young people isn’t satisfactory. What I see is this. Students are in poverty, they often work at least full-time, often more, and also do a full-time course. Even then they rack up debt. A student loan is the one unforgivable debt you have in society. They are in no position to come to the campus and engage in learning. Under these conditions it’s little wonder they aren't that engaged in the learning, and don’t come to lectures (30% attendance is normal these days). Conversations with many undergraduate students are centered around what the minimum requirements are to get a grade. It's completely the wrong environment in which to learn anything. On top of that we are one place that treats its customers with contempt. We charge for car parking, we are often cold and unwelcoming. Good luck here if you are a first-generation university student coming out of poverty.
8/ Last, but most important, we must make a comeback as the critic and conscience of society. Academics can and should debate issues of national and international importance and do so in public. How is it thinkable that my field of public health wouldn’t include the public? The importance of the free and open university in society should not be underestimated. Cancel culture, lack of respect for others’ arguments and invention of new, previously unknown words like “misinformation” and “disinformation” simply must go. In my experience this means 'your opinion is so unworthy that I don’t even have to lower myself to have to debate you on facts. I’m simply right because I’ve labeled you as a harbourer of disinformation.' This is dangerous and a sign of non-functioning science. It’s a sign of a university which is no longer relevant.
Look university, I still love you deep down, but we do need to talk, all of us, openly and with freedom to express (and challenge) a point of view.
About me: Professor Grant Schofield
Here’s the script for the academic CV – what we get judged by. But have I actually contributed and can I still contribute to society?
I’ve worked in Australian and NZ universities for my whole adult career. I climbed my way to tenured full professor in my mid-thirties and was the youngest full professor in NZ that I knew of at the time. I’ve started and directed a research centre, which has brought in many tens of millions of dollars in external funding. I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and working with super smart and driven young people who have gone from where I started to be leaders in their fields and full professors. I’ve published hundreds of scientific papers in reputable scientific journals. Fair enough, hardly anyone reads scientific papers, but at least mine are well cited, another measure of research impact. I’ve authored six books, all translating my health research into forms for everyone to benefit, some have been best sellers in NZ and elsewhere. I’ve had a good public profile advocating for changes in exercise, diet, mental health and more which all align with my research and practice. I’ve spent time starting and selling businesses in health and well-being. I’ve worked as the Chief Health and Nutrition Advisor for The Ministry of Education. I’ve sat on government committees and boards. Right now I also work part-time as the Chief Science Officer for Prekure training health coaches, a new part of a functioning health workforce for the future.
This article was posted at The Science of Human Potential