no. 03_december 2018
Academic life has changed dramatically in recent decades. With the expansion of higher education, broader sections of the population have gained access to colleges and universities. This has had a huge impact on the composition of students and higher education staff. Thus, the diversity of higher education institutions has increased significantly. However, gender, ethnicity and social background still strongly determine which fields of study are chosen and which careers are subsequently open to students inside and outside academia.
According to the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, the ‘most international’ universities of the world are the Universities of Luxembourg and Qatar. They display the highest shares of international students, staff, and collaborations – indicators taken for assessing an internationality that positions the university in a global competition. Their scores are communicated as benchmarks of internationality, as a sign of a university’s competitiveness. Consequently, universities around the world as well as whole national higher education systems seek to become ‘more international’.
What does it mean to be an academic? What is the perception of who or what an academic is? These are questions pondered by those who live their lives outside the academy but view themselves as academics. They are underlined by harmful attitudes which seek to situate an academic within and only within the academy. Can you be an academic if you work outside of an academic institution? Do those academic institutions treat all academics the same?
Popular rhetoric surrounding the transformation of academia around the globe often draws on a set of dichotomous discourses, characterising organisational change as inciting a clash or struggle between opposing conceptions of the academy and its workers: scientific versus corporate values; collegial versus managerial work control; fast versus slow productivity; instrumental versus substantive goals; and high modern versus post-modern knowledge orders. Here, I seek to narrow in on a key battleground for the politics of academia, namely the temporal ordering of scholarly work.
Stefan Collini, in his book ‘What are Universities For’, describes the importance of reflection and contemplation on the meaning of academic life. As a way of encouraging such reflection, I begin with my own story. For me, sharing stories is a way to resist the neoliberal university and the emotional and physical weight of its deadening and narrow metric-oriented measures. So, my contribution to this special issue on Academic Lives is contextualized in meaning making, in my own academic life and my personal/professional experiences.
Anyone engaged in higher education research, particularly Critical University Studies, encounters a paradox: never in human history has higher education been so widespread in its reach and global significance. A rough estimate would place around 2.8% of the world’s population as currently being enrolled in tertiary education, with proportionate numbers of academics, support and administrative staff, and buildings to house them. At the same time, however, even as the centrality and importance of academic research, teaching and knowledge exchange has grown, the relative status of the academic profession has suffered a precipitous decline.
Higher education draws its legitimation mainly from a self-image as an academic institution. Profound transformations within higher education since the middle of the 20th century, however, have not just changed the form, but also the idea of higher education. Massification has shaped research and teaching practices – and the self-concept of academia with it.
I grew up at a time when my parents saw education as the only way out of poverty, while, in my later years, I understood it to be a means to escape culturally defined gender roles. Following independence, it was a way out of colonialism as the lawyers and teachers came back into the country and became leaders. Many Zimbabweans have now left the country to become academic tourists or, if they are lucky, they are academics in exile. It is here in the diaspora, in Northern Australia, where I start reflecting on being lost and found among the Aboriginal people.
Academic work is intense. Academics beginning their careers now carry an unprecedented weight of expectation across a wide range of roles. They must excel as teachers, researchers, supervisors, managers and public intellectuals who are technologically savvy, culturally aware, entrepreneurial and capable of competing on an international scale for students, research funds, patents, publication opportunities, media time, rankings, awards and tenure. Academics must also account for all these activities in a performative environment that is more managerial, market-oriented and international than ever before.
The primary purpose of this reply is to build on Lybeck’s insights, picking up in particular his suggestion that we must “collectively rethink ourselves”. However, in order to do this, I need to establish a more controversial narrative of academia’s culpability in preventing social change, which I argue is preventing this rethinking from happening.
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