Research at the cost of teaching

A few months ago at a conference on innovation and research, I made a small contribution that was quite audacious — and largely dismissed. I said one of our greatest failures in South Africa was in education, that this failure represented an immediate crisis and it was, therefore, more important for direct and purposeful interventions to be made in education than anywhere else.

Most conference delegates seemed somewhat disturbed by my suggestion that South Africa's lack of innovation and research was not at a critical tipping point, but that educational failures were.

I told the story at the conference of a prestigious academic institution in the United States that came close to losing its accreditation because it had focused so much of its energy and resources on research that it neglected undergraduate teaching. I made the general point that universities were fundamentally educational institutions and teaching was as essential as knowledge production (research) to the role that these institutions played in society.

Trying desperately not to reduce the discussion to personal experience, I also told delegates of a message I had received from the head of department at a large South African university to the effect that teaching ranked well below research requirements when employing professors.

What this suggested to me was that the education of thousands of students ­— the people who are the next generation of South Africa's leaders, who pay to get an education — was being relegated to the periphery of the academic institution. Given our current needs in South Africa, I suggested that we might want to consider changing our priorities.

Research is vital for the advancement of knowledge, but I believe it has become a ruse. Lest I be misunderstood, I should stress that I firmly believe that the production of new knowledge and innovation are vital for an array of reasons, many of which are well known and generally incontestable. Nonetheless, what can be contested in South Africa, today, is the prioritisation of research over education among ­academics at a time when:

• Education has been, arguably, the greatest failure of the post-apartheid period;

• South Africa desperately needs skilled people to fill important gaps in the job market and education can, and should, serve a broader human emancipatory purpose; and

• South African academics, in obeisance to the publish-or-perish tradition, are not producing nearly enough original research anyway.

One research professor at a South African university confirmed a few weeks ago that South African researchers produced about 0.6% of world academic literature. By one, separate, estimate there were 1.3-million articles published in peer-reviewed journals in 2006.

These many peer-reviewed articles highlight the problem faced by academics who are under pressure to publish or lose their jobs. (Bad teachers do not seem to lose their jobs as readily, but bad research often leads to the refusing of full-time tenured positions.)

Nonetheless, in three separate discussions with influential scholars in South Africa and abroad over the past several months, it was explained to me that:

• "Most of what is published in peer-reviewed journals is rehashed arguments, or recycled ideas";

• "In many cases, if you cannot find a 'high-impact' journal to publish your essay, you simply find some journal published by a rag-tag organisation, or create your own journal. As long as you can say it was 'peer-reviewed' it counts"; and

• In the social sciences, once in perhaps 10 years an article comes along that makes an original contribution to a discipline that affects its direction.

In my doctoral research, much of which focused on the orthodoxy that underpins neoclassical economics, I found that there is a type of comradely back-slapping and wilful obscurantism among academic economists and what one scholar described as a "journal game" in which scholars "hide behind thickets of algebra".

Career success in most institutions is usually based on producing publications, not on teaching excellence, as the head of department mentioned above confirmed to me. Peer-reviewed research, as a first-order criterion of success, tends therefore to serve only the narrow interests of a band of scholars in particular disciplines.

According to the British journalist George Monbiot,  the publish-or-perish machine is increasingly driven "to maintain a status hierarchy of journals".

Writing in The Guardian in August last year, Monbiot said: "Any paper, however bad, can now get published in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed. The blame for this sad situation lies with the people who have imposed a publish-or-perish culture, namely research funders and senior people in universities … The only people who benefit from the intense pressure to publish are those in the publishing industry. Hardly a day passes without a new journal starting."

This industry looks like a racket driven more by profit than by a genuine commitment to make new knowledge available to the public.

A single article published in a mainstream academic journal can cost between R300 and R500 to download. Now, if journals publish new knowledge, is this "knowledge" produced to help us make better decisions about our lives and about society if only the wealthy, or fellow academics, can access it?

"What we see here is pure rentier capitalism monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it," as Monbiot argued. "Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

"It's bad enough for academics, it's worse for the laity. I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can't afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands.

"This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that 'everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits'.

"Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets, which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities' costs, which are being passed to their students."

It is this cost to the students that is a huge problem; they are in double trouble, it seems to me. First they have teachers who would rather not teach and do research instead, and second, when their research is published, the cost of journal access is passed on to students.

This is why I think the pressure to publish, as a means of advancing an academic career, is a ruse. Academics seem to use this pressure as a means of shirking what is arguably their prime purpose — to educate the children who will be the next generation of South African leaders.

We should not follow the pervasive (and perverse) United States practice in which most of the teaching is done by graduate students, or junior and temporary staff who are paid very little. How shall we avoid it? In other words, how can we ensure that new knowledge is produced and that our students get a thorough education that opens their minds and prepares them for re-entry into society?

Ismail Lagardien was trained at the London School of Economics, holds a DPhil from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and taught political economy and international affairs in the United States for six years. He now works in the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.

The views expressed in this article, the first in his three-part series on the crisis in South African higher education, are his own.

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