Op-Ed: Academic Merit

After the recent negative coverage they have received in the press, Professor Gerard Casey defends academics and their salaries“UCD staff top survey for Ireland’s highest paid educators” is the headline over Keira Gilleece’s front-page piece in the last issue of The University Observer, dated 16th November 2010. Writing inside the paper, Amy Bracken, in a companion piece, titled ‘The Wages of Fear’ tells us that a recent Irish Times report reveal that “UCD’s academic staff are among the highest paid in the country”. This would be interesting if true. Is it true? That depends on what one means by the terms educator and academic.If you’ve ever watched a film’s credits roll you were probably astonished by the staggering number of people employed in the making of the film—producers, associate producers, wardrobe mistresses, make-up artists, lighting people, sound engineers and people with mysterious job titles (what exactly is a ‘best boy’?). None of these people appear on screen and they are not actors.Just as actors are those who appear in front of the camera and not behind it, so too an academic or educator is someone who teaches and researches in a university, not just anyone who happens to work there. Lots of people who work in UCD are not academics: grounds-keepers, restaurant staff, technicians, school administrators, human resources staff, Vice-Presidents for this, that and the other, a Registrar and a President. However important the work they do, it’s not education and it’s not academic and they are neither educators nor academics. Some of these workers may have been academics in the past and may again be academics in the future but they are not now academics.The top 10 of the Irish Times list [“The top 100 best-paid in education” (n.b. not ‘educators’)] contains five people from UCD: the Vice-President for Research, the Dean of the School of Business, the Principal of the College of Engineering, the President, and the Vice-President for Staff. When you continue through this list, on which Ms Gilleece’s article is uncritically based, you discover that virtually everybody on that list is a non-academic. You will have no difficulty finding University Presidents and Provosts, IT Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Vice-Provosts; Deans, Directors, Bursars, Principals, Registrars, the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, the Minister for Education, the Director Generals of FAS, of the Institute of Public Administration, of Science Foundation Ireland, the Director of the ESRI, the Chief Executive of the State Examination Commission, the Chief Executive of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority, and so on, ad nauseam, on the list but you’ll need a Hubble telescope to detect any genuine full-time academics there. In the end, what is truly remarkable about the Irish Times list is the glaring absence of academic staff and educators from the ranks of the most highly paid people who work in the education sector.Given that the staff of The University Observer appear to be unable to distinguish between academics and others who work in the education sector, it is not surprising that Ms Bracken in her article demonstrates a sublime ignorance of just what it is that academics do. She reports that “in September, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee announced that some academics are working less than 15 hours per week.”The 15 hours per week claim might make some sense if you were to limit the work of an academic exclusively to teaching but, alas, we have to do other things as well. The teaching element of an academic’s work is visible and obvious even to students. But just as TDs (including members of the Public Accounts Committee) cannot be judged to be at work only when they are speaking in the Dáil chamber, so too, academics can and do work when they’re not either teaching, preparing to teach or assessing the results of their teaching. Under the terms of their contracts, academics undertake academic administration as part of which they engage in pastoral work with their students, advising them on their academic choices both here in UCD and on life after UCD and supporting their efforts to find work or go on to further education. Included in academic administration is the committee work we undertake in our Schools and in the University at large. There are committees on Research and Innovation, Teaching and Learning, Library, Postgraduate Admissions, School Finances, Examinations, etc. Not everyone is on all these committees but few academics escape the gravitational pull of some committee or other.By the terms of our contracts, any time not devoted to teaching and administration, we spend on reading, experimenting, researching, writing and publishing. We publish monographs and textbooks, journal articles, book reviews, evaluate other academics’ publications as part of the peer review process, attend conferences and give conference presentations and serve on the boards of scholarly or scientific journals.Given that there is a finite amount of time that anyone, even academics, can work, the amount of how much of any one of the trio (teaching, academic administration, research & publication) one does limits how much of the other two one can do. It’s a zero-sum game. You can increase the time you spend on any one of these sorts of activities only if you decrease the time you spend on others; more teaching and administration, less research and publication. Something that should be borne in mind if you are a student is that the degree you get from your university is only as good as the reputation of the institution granting it and that reputation depends on the reputation of its academics; their reputation, in turn, depends primarily on the quality of their published research. When the academic staff members of a university have a poor research reputation, the institution’s reputation suffers and so does the quality of the degree that students obtain.Professor Gerard Casey is a lecturer in the UCD School of Philosophy.