Is the term ‘academic’ now empty in higher education?

I have recently had my annual review.  This is not the annual review we are all becoming familiar with as part of the performance management culture of higher education, but as part of my ‘probation’.  Yes, you read that correctly, I am on probation.

Approaching 20 years in academia to find, on taking this job, that I would be on probation felt, well, insulting.  Obviously, it isn’t enough to meet the requirements of the job and so be employed by the institution.  Neither is it enough to undertake an annual review of performance that asks all the same questions as my probationary review meeting.  No, instead I have to be treated as if all my previous experience (which contributed to me being offered the post in the first place) was worthless.

Many of the questions posed in the meeting continued in this negative vein.  And I am using negative here as in the way much of my academic practice was negated, rendered negative or simply invisible.

The academic networks I was embedded in prior to this job were construed as  hindrances, and viewed as things that held me (back?) to my previous employment.  The fact that one of those associations was a network I had initiated and had organised its first conference appeared to be irrelevant.  I wondered whether the ethical/political focus of that network on migration and racism was just seen as unworthy of my current job specification.

And then there was the inevitable question about research funding.  They did inquire into what writing I was currently working on.  I suppose this passes as an interest in what us academics are supposed to be engaged in – knowledge.  But it is research grants that our institutions are most interested in.

It is worth thinking about this carefully, and about the way valued research is equated with grant capture, that is how knowledge is reduced to money.

If our value is measured less in terms of the quality of our teaching and the way we work with knowledge, and more in terms of grant capture, can we really say we are engaged in academic activity?

Of course probation can work both ways.  As I sat there it was the institution that was on probation.  I have yet to write the report.


I wasn’t going to write about this experience but was prompted by re-reading the blog post by Mark Carrigan on the ‘Accelerated Academy‘ and the article by Ros Gill referred to in Mark’s post.

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