Sunday, March 13, 2011

Professor Larkins & postgraduate students

On Skepticslawyer, Witty Knitter's post The new face of the research student plus comments got me thinking.

WK was concerned about the views expressed by Frank Larkins, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne. Professor Larkins believes that there should be fewer PhD students, and that they should be full-time, on an increased full scholarship:

I would opt for fewer research students, pay them better and insist that they be full time and get them through the system,” Professor Larkins said after the launch of his book, Australian Higher Education: Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP). (itals WK)

WK was concerned, among other things, about the apparent gap between Professor Larkin's views and the actual reality of research student enrolments. She challenged the assumptions that appeared to be built into his view: research students were not all young, were not undertaking research as a first step in building a career, but instead were undertaking study for their own purposes. She was also critical of funding approaches because of the industry and innovation focus. Those commenting on WK's post focused on specific aspects of the postgraduate experience, especially supervision.

In my own brief comment, I said:

I have mixed views on this one, WK. I think that part of my problem lies in the way that issues are entangled in my mind.

Some years ago, I worked in the Department you are referring to, and was one of those pushing for better commercialisation of the results from research. Later I became concerned at the way the outcomes were reducing free blue sky research. Later still, I became concerned at the way that the focus on vocation was destroying education for the sake of education.

Because the issues are so muddled in my mind, I will try to write a companion post just disentangling it all.

This post is my promised response. In writing, I am not trying to be too structured or rigorous, just getting down a few points that I hope might contribute to discussion. As with so many of my posts. I am drawing on my personal experience to illustrate issues and to provide context. While this will be obvious, I make the point explicitly now to alert you to the fact that I have very strong views on some issues plus a degree of nostalgia for a past now gone.  

The rise of credentialism

I grew up in an academic household in a small university city in the days before mass university education. My father and his brother completed their PhDs (Manchester, Cambridge) at a time when there were very few PhD students. This was true even when my older cousins did their PhDs in the period immediately following the Second World War.

With so few PhDs around, university staff members did not always have doctorates. A doctorate was not seen as a necessary entry point to a university position, although it helped. The focus in the PhD was more on the contribution to knowledge, a piece of original research.

By the 1970s, the PhD had become a necessary qualification for a university position. In 1982 I considered applying for a lectureship in Australian history. I was already an SES officer in the Commonwealth Public Service with broad based experience on a professorial equivalent salary, I had an honours in history and a masters in economics, some publications, while my work as a PhD student was known. I was advised by Professor Yarwood not to bother, that I would not be interviewed, that I would not be eligible for such a position until I completed my PhD.

The rise of credentialism changed the nature of the PhD. While it was still seen as a contribution to original knowledge, its dominant role was now as a ticket for those wishing to pursue an academic career in both teaching and research.

In parallel came the rise of the citation index, something that I discussed in Publish or Perish - where did the this phrase come from?. The first proposal for a citation index dates to the 1960s. The first on-line index appeared in the 1970s. While the citation index was viewed as a way of better accessing knowledge, it quickly became an academic measuring tool. Publish or perish had arrived.

This changed the relationship between PhD student and supervisor, especially in science. Cases of supervisors effectively pinching student research have a long history. However, now it became more regularised in the sense that student research was critical to supervisor's publication lists through the mechanism of joint publications. Honest supervisors contributed to those publications. Others got a free ride.

Today, the measurement of research performance at individual and institutional level has become absolutely critical to funding and to the various league tables that play a key role in the competitive marketplace. Again, this affects thinking about the role of PhDs.

The rise of credentialism was not, of course, limited to the university world. The spread of vocational qualifications in other parts of the economy affected universities at all levels as they chased new markets. This led in turn to a proliferation of postgraduate vocational offerings. The battles continue today with the attempt to get the name doctor attached to certain vocational offerings.

Commercialisation, postgraduate research & the rise of patents

From the middle of 1987 I was responsible for Commonwealth Government policies and programs for the electronics, aerospace and information industries. In this role I, and others, pushed for the more effective commercialisation of university research. We were especially influenced here by Australia's failure to effectively commercialise technology and to develop the new university based new technology clusters that had emerged in other places. As part of this, we looked at new mechanisms for industry-university cooperation.

This theme has continued to the present day, although the wording has varied as have some of the institutional structures. Today, for example, innovation is all the go. Yet the basic approach is still the same.

By the early 1990s, I was worried that the approaches that I had advocated were destroying blue sky research, that the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge was vanishing. My view here was partly one of values, but I also thought that that the applied bias was reducing the creation of new knowledge. Then, too, I was influenced by the way that the academic areas I was interested in in arts and the humanities were struggling to get funding because there was no direct payback.

This remains my view. Some of the greatest advances in human knowledge have been the by-blow of people pursuing research driven by intellectual curiosity. As scope for this diminishes, so does the generation of new knowledge. Here I have argued that that the generation of new knowledge has actually diminished over recent decades.

In the early 2000s I was project manager of an attempt to commercialise a new piece of science. This introduced a new dimension.

The university department in question was one of the largest in its field in Australia. Its large postgraduate group was nearly all funded by industry grants. The need to maintain such grants drove approaches. As the professor explained, we can't really do pure research because there is no way of funding it.

In the field in question, funders own the intellectual property - the issues this raises are interesting, but beyond the scope of this post. Patents are very important to the protection of that intellectual property. You cannot patent something that is already in the public domain. Patents also take considerable time to work their way through patents systems around the world.

During the patent period, students and staff cannot produce academic papers, the usual pecking order mechanism. Further, even when the patent is on the public record, what can be published is still limited because of the need to protect ancillary intellectual property.

All this has certain effects.

The number of patents issued actually takes the place of the normal academic publication. This creates its own distortion because it creates an incentive to patent independent of the real value of the patent. At a macro level, it also slows the creation and distribution of knowledge. Finally, it can create real problems for the postgraduate student because they are dealing with commercial issues that they don't really understand.

None of this might matter if there were adequate funding for a slice of pure, intellectual curiosity driven, research. There is not.                 

Diversity in the postgraduate experience

Sadly, students have a bad tendency to do what they want to do, not what universities or governments expect!

At the time Professor Yarwood was telling me that I must get my PhD if I wanted to drop salary and status to become a university lecturer, the University of New England had a large Australian postgraduate history group from Bachelor of Letters to PhD. Most were externals. None had any interest in postgraduate study as a ticket. They were studying because they wanted to study, because they had very specific things that they wanted to research and needed structure and help.      

Since 1982, there has been an explosion in the number and diversity of postgraduate students. Herein lies the real problem with Professor Larkins' comment.

In the most basic terms, what does he mean when he says that there should be fewer PhD students, that they should be full-time, on an increased full scholarship? Just which slice is he talking about?

My feeling, and this is part of WK's point, is that he is thinking just of those students for whom a PhD is a research ticket. I also suspect, and this point was made by some of WK's commenters, that his comments have to be set in the context of Melbourne University's current strategy.

However, I also feel that his views reflect a view of the university that were set when he was a student and young academic. Just looking at his photo, I would guess 1960s or early 1970s.

Here I do have sympathy. It will be clear that I don't like many of the changes that have occurred. I don't like the modern Australian university. Still, that should be a story for another post.    


M-H said...

Jim, I really appreciate this post. This is really interesting stuff. You clearly have wide an unusually lived experience of how PhD is 'done' in Australia. I have only my reading and thinking, and the views of people I've interviewed. Thanks.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi MH, also known as WK. I am glad that the post was helpful. I deliberately tried to give a context to your points.

Legal Eagle said...

Jim, I also found this to be a great post. You are so right about the rising status of the PhD as a ticket to an academic job. Part of the reason why I did my PhD was to get an ongoing teaching position. But I also did my PhD because I love learning and to contribute to the sum of knowledge of law.

My senior supervisor gave the speech at my graduation. He said that when he did his PhD in Law, he was seen as an "amiable lunatic" because it wasn't really necessary back then for an academic job. He did it simply because he enjoyed it and he wanted to contribute to legal knowledge. No wonder he was such a fine supervisor. Both my supervisors were great, actually.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. On law training, a colleague remarked the other day on the way that academic lawyers had replaced practicing lawyers at unis.

I approve of your senior supervisor's comment!

Like you, I had two supervisors, in my case because I started and finished as an external student. One was at UNE, one at ANU. Colin Hughes at ANU was quite magnificent!