Sunday, December 11, 2005

NZ universities

So you always wondered why ivory tower academics were so—well ivory towerish?

New Zealand Universities (and probably universities all around the world) have fallen into a poor state. One of the key problems is the way that incentives have been built. And this is related to the union type structure of the universities that allows them to pursue their own aims as opposed to the aims of those who pay them. Worse yet this does not help them as anyone can tell you the competition between professors has reduced academia to a disgusting environment of political backstabbing.

The details:

The key incentive for a lecturer at university is publication of articles - this is what gets him hired and what buys him influence in a department.

In New Zealand this is taken to an extreme because in competing with foreign universities that can pay more New Zealand offers huge amounts of time off to write articles, that way the university can claim the professor's name and use it to advertise how good they are. Now this might make sense if those articles were valued for their contribution to the country (the place that is paying their salary) but that is not the case they are instead valued for their ability to be published a complex combination of their networks with other authors overseas (getting a co authorship with a famous author greatly increases your chances as does having the support of someone on an editorial board) AND the degree to which your article is novel. The latter sounds like it is a good idea but in reality it leaves many academics studying things that have no practical benefit at all. For example I know of academics who take a tautological model with no value outside of theory and force it onto various different situations again and again.

Finally there are the restrictions of academic research that discourage people from just going out and answering the questions that need to be answered because it is easier to publish something that is deeply enmeshed in what has already been written, this also results in an incredible inertia in academia and a lack of pragmatism that leaves it often lagging far behind the actual real world practice of the thing it is studying - constantly trying to catch up.

Much better is the work done in schools like engineering where people study cancer therapy and other such things in conjunction with business. When I bring this up often people complain about academic freedom but actually academic freedom has already been compromised by the system and at least as far as students are concerned I know most actually WANT to do something practical but time and time again they are told that they cannot that it wont get published and it wont get good marks.

Other people compromise their project in order to fit it into the confines of the academic degree, I for example in a brainstorming session worked out a better way to perform a type of cancer therapy, but it would have complicated the experiment and you don’t get marked for how valuable it is you get marked for how well it is written. So the idea was discarded.

In my experience the best teachers were also some of the worst at publishing and some of the worst teachers were the best at publishing anyway (although that too is probably effected by the system).

I sugest a total restructuring of the wy universities work and their incentive structures a break point from this counter productive system we have created.


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