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Universities face a crisis in professional culture


Focus on research culture obscures wider and deeper problems, say Paul Manners and Rory Duncan

Discussions of research culture have been going on for as long as we can remember. Many hours and minds have been given to pondering how to make research careers, mainly in universities, more attractive, sustainable and stable, and how to enhance the link between research and wider society. There is even a government plan, the R&D People and Culture Strategy, that provides, it says, a “call to action” for research organisations to make improvements. 

Research culture certainly needs fixing. Toxic behaviours, precarity and exclusionary practices all demand attention. Besides the moral imperative, without a well-functioning system that attracts and develops diverse, talented people, research won’t be able to respond to the knowledge needs of society. 

But the issues gathered under the umbrella of research culture are better understood and tackled as symptoms of deeper, more pervasive structural problems. Unless we pause and reframe, we risk missing the wood for the trees.

Existential threats

Research plays a relatively minor role in the underpinning finances of higher education. For many universities, teaching accounts for approaching 90 per cent of revenue. And even for the research-intensives, it’s the biggest source of income. 

Solutions for research culture, then, must take account of the broader economic model on which universities are based, and this is in crisis. Income for teaching is fixed and dwindling in value as the cost of everything else inflates. Research is costing more, and funders’ contributions are not keeping pace. 

Universities respond to declining revenue by increasing student numbers if they can and by creating more efficient ways of delivering teaching. This risks introducing increased, and increasingly unsustainable, pressure on staff, one symptom of which is seemingly perennial industrial action.

If universities become unattractive and even more pressurised places to work, we’re in trouble, because the people we need won’t come. Research culture must be tackled in the context of these wider existential threats, or efforts to fix it will be fiddling while Rome burns.

The issue needs to be reframed: there is a crisis in professional culture right across higher education. This is not just about research, or even academic, culture—it’s about how we work collaboratively, with common purpose, to build and share powerful knowledge, and how we value expertise inside and outside universities. 

This is also an existential crisis about the knowledge needs of a rapidly shifting society and culture. We in universities have to challenge ourselves about whether our paradigms of knowledge production, in silos of research, knowledge exchange and teaching, are adequate for the wider needs of society. We must stop privileging academic expertise over the many other forms of professional and lived expertise needed to build and share knowledge effectively.

This is also a human-scale problem. Universities are at heart about learning—and this requires respect for and empathy with people’s cultural and emotional identities. It’s welcome that the research culture debate has brought this into focus.

Holistic frame 

A helpful first step could be to shift the language. ‘Culture’ is a nebulous term at best; focusing on ‘environment’ instead would make the issue tangible and tractable. Similarly, ending the fixation on research and starting to think about how to build learning environments fit for the 21st century, able to deliver on universities’ promises to make the world a better place, would give a more holistic frame to coordinate efforts. 

There are already wonderful examples of people developing new ways of organising and connecting learning and research to power each other, and of governance arrangements that allow inclusive, trustful decision-making that gives collaborators power and influence. 

There are places where fluid employment practices enable people, skills, cultures and ideas to be mobile, and where undergraduates are empowered as learning champions. Some faculties are experimenting with new ways of creative commissioning of projects and embracing new design practices.

Universities can also learn from other sectors that have navigated threats such as underfunding, shifting operating environments, changing user needs, obsolete and restrictive operating models and bureaucracy. Broadcasting, the cultural sector, charities and many businesses have implemented a level of transformation that, compared with higher education, is breathtaking.

So yes, let’s worry about research culture. But let’s not lose the plot. 

Paul Manners is co-director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Rory Duncan is pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version appeared in Research Europe