Major issues confronting academics

My Statement (Nomination for the University Council 2014-2016)

I believe that the purposes of academia cannot be realized without the freedom of inquiry, workplace democracy, and fairness in the distribution of opportunities. Unfortunately, our universities have become increasingly under assault by the forces of ‘austerity’, ‘commercialization’, and ‘corporatization’. Sustainable improvement is possible only in an equitable and empowering environment, especially for those who carry the chief burdens of teaching and research. As a diligent council member and a member of NTEU, with a practical sense of the emerging challenges, I will raise voices of colleagues otherwise unheard, will strive to reduce disparities and advocate for greater autonomy through proposing new initiatives such as participatory budgeting, consultative decision-makings, meaningful course/teaching evaluations, a systemic assessment of the management by the staff for stronger mutual accountability, adjustment of ‘performance expectations’ against the existing levels of ‘support’, and the liberation of academic promotions from financial/administrative constraints. It’s time to start thinking of alternatives.

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My responses to the NTEU questions (link to NTEU’s website):

Question 1: What is/are the major issue/s confronting academics that you would pursue as a member of Council? Maximum three to five line response please.

I sincerely apologize for this lengthy response. I am thankful to the NTEU for proving the candidates with this opportunity. Please allow me to begin a conversation:

Many of the challenges we – as academics – are facing today are generally rooted in the broader external changes happening across the whole sector, such as the growing financial pressures on and uncertainties around the future of higher education, growing competition among universities over limited sources of funding and demands – exacerbated more recently by the government’s proposed aggressive budgetary and regressive higher education reforms. I suppose that many of us are very well aware of these changes and their possible implications (as they are not very much new). The scope of the management’s response to these shifts (in many universities) however is very much limited to some legitimate but ironically narrow concerns around the financial survival of their institutions (in many cases giving up many of their academic values).

The commonly accepted idea is that by dancing to the tune of the broader commercialization forces and the adoption of corporate policies (the exact forces/policies that normally lead the economies to destabilization and recession) we would be able to survive! This however may result in some degrees of short-term improvements in terms of colourful numbers/quantities/rankings – at the cost of increasing pressures on working members. But, this approach is destined to face significant challenges in dealing with many serious non-quantifiable issues that in turn will have adverse impacts on their financial performance by creating unnecessary costs normally associated with centralized, un-accountable modes of governance.

More stormy days are ahead of us and we need to prepare ourselves not just by focusing on the commercial aspects but also on how to prevent adverse impacts of these changes on the quality of our academic life, collegiality, and autonomy. Sustainable efficiency is strongly associated with morality and integrity. An educational system that is treated as a financial firm will grow structural contradictions and internal conflicts between its material reality and its principles. A workplace where the members have strong sense of belonging to, and experience thriving collegiality, equity, and ‘meaningful’ debates and participation, will certainly have a far greater capacity for resilience even under harshest circumstances. It is important to make sure that the changing environment will have the least adverse impacts on our ‘quality’ of work as educators and researchers, on our (mental) health, academic autonomy, commitments to the public and our communities, authentic academic promotion, transparency and inclusiveness in governance, and of course, on our students’ true satisfaction (that can hardly be translated into problematic numbers!).

Universities are not (meant to be) corporations or government organizations! The imposition of models inspired by top-down corporate or centralized bureaucratic policies can cause serious structural contradictions between our de jure academic objectives and our de facto financial ones, resulting in issues such as: destructive rivalries (within and between institutions), growing factions within our schools and rising monopolies around the so-called ‘research strengths’, and thereby depressing the diversity of talents, undermining interdisciplinary cooperation, weakening intellectually and socially responsive courses, deteriorating the research-teaching nexus that normally grow out of real interactions in real classes, widespread feelings of dissatisfaction among both educators and the students, unevenness in the division of burden, eliticism, imposition of extensive and expensive micromanagement, reduction of our valuable contributions to only numerical records, unjustified obsessions with rankings, unrealistic perfectionist expectations of the staff and many more issues.

The autonomy and the resilience (both material and non-material) of the academia are most effectively protected by encouraging egalitarianism within our universities and enforcing ‘cooperative models’. Many studies now show that horizontally managed organizations demonstrate greater levels of efficiency and flexibility in critical times. In such places, the workers are more likely to sacrifice their short-term material interests for the greater good of their institutions due to their stronger sense of belonging caused by meaningful participation in decision-making processes.

In sum, the solution is not in conformity with the demands of a ‘race-to-bottom’ approach but rather to prove that our university is very unique in terms of creating a diverse and dynamic environment of learning and researching with viable objectives (not demonstrated in many other places) where researchers and teachers address the most important global, local and national issues of our communal life; a place where ‘cooperation’ proves its supremacy over ‘competition’ and education is truly valued as a ‘public good’; A university proud to be inclusive to the disadvantaged. To prove to the society that our programs are not degree-printing apparatuses and our courses are not ATMs (automatically teaching machines), and our employees and students’ contributions are very well valued. We need to emphasize on our uniqueness rather than to compete for a higher place in sameness!

Question 2: If elected to Council, would you be prepared to take a stand for greater openness and transparency in Council proceedings, decisions, and minutes?
Yes,
Please provide one sentence of explanation for your decision.

Currently only four (out of 16) members of the Council (the most powerful governing body) are directly elected members (only two academics, one student, and one non-academic). Nine are external (mostly non-academic) appointed members; most of them with financial and technical expertise. Therefore, it is very crucial to improve the openness and transparency of the Council to make sure that the decisions made are very well informed of our academic requirements as well as the staff and students’ views. It is important to make sure that there is a live and viable channel of communication between the elected members of the Council, the Union, students, and the working staff, so the elected members will be able to transmit/resonate a broad range of concerns and voices to the Council.
It is true that the majority of the Academic Senate and the Faculty Boards are elected. However, these academic forums function mostly as advisory bodies to the Council, being expected to look after the “academic quality assurance” with a very limited influence on strategic decisions. I would like to discuss and explore not only the ways through which we can enhance the Council’s transparency but also to improve its connection to our academic forums across the university where serious issues are debated and voted on, beyond a rubber-stamping approach.

The main dilemma is to make sure that our institution will be able to survive the mounting financial pressures without giving up its academic principles. Finding solutions should not be too difficult. It just needs a collective courage to think further beyond the box and act more inclusively. It is important to move beyond negative criticisms by encouraging debates around some suggestive measures such as:

(1) more effective mechanisms of transferring the academic boards’ concerns and recommendations to the Council;
(2) encourage a stronger consultative approach in making decisions at all levels to the extent that the staff grow a strong sense of belonging to their workplace;
(3) establishing an online forum where the members of the university will be able to discuss their major issues, experiences, and proposals, and to formally lodge their concerns to their representatives in the Senate, Boards, and the Council;
(4) Encouraging stronger sense of mutual responsibility by establishing a more effective, regular and independent way of assessing the performance of the Council and the management of the university, by the staff;
(5) raising the awareness of the non-academic members of the management around the challenges and complexities of the academic work as well as academic values through a number of regular workshops run by the academic staff;
(6) increasing the number of elected members of the Council and the ‘diversity’ of appointed external members by including prominent citizens who strongly endorse scholarly values, and are aware of critical challenges beyond the financial framework (people not only with financial expertise but also judges, experts in education, community activists and advocates of civil/human rights, members of civil society organizations, the alumni, etc.);
(7) amplifying the influence of the elected academic bodies (i.e. the Senate and Faculty/School Boards) in governance; and last but not least,
(8) adequate acknowledgement of all the elected members’ contributions to the Boards, the Senate and the Council, as part of their service workload/responsibility (to make sure they can meaningfully represent their constituencies and they won’t disadvantaged by taking the very crucial role of representing their colleagues).

Question 3: What experience have you had in representing or advocating on behalf of work colleagues? Maximum of three lines response please.

I worked as a casual and fixed term for more than two years in a number of universities in Australia (ANU where I completed my PhD in Global Studies and Sociology in 2006, UTS and UNSW as a Lecturer Level B) before joining the UoN in December 2008. During this period, like many of my colleagues, I have practically experienced many challenges associated with this increasingly demanding but still blissful and self-fulfilling job. I have served as an ‘elected member’ of the FEDUA Faculty Board since the beginning of 2014. I am pleased that I was elected by my School members on the basis of the same view I am expressing here. I, however, believe more important than having a long ‘representational experience’, the candidates should also propose more fresh ideas, and develop a deeper understanding of the concerns our working academics normally have. I whole-heartedly welcome everybody’s comments and criticism on any aspects of my view.

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