If I Were a Vice-Chancellor

Universities and research are going through a tough time at the moment. Researchers/scientists are seen as less and less relevant – think climate change, vaccines, genetically modified crops, medicinal marijuana. Employment as an academic researcher has lost its shine. Degrees are being devalued. And graduates are wondering if it is all worth it.

So, if I were a senior university academic – say a Vice-Chancellor or Provost – these are the changes I’d make (in no particular order).

1. Disconnect grants from research contracts – I know it is hard to offer someone a job if you don’t know if you’ll have the money to pay for them. However, it is also hard for an employee to commit to a job, place or a lifestyle knowing their contract is tied to grant success. So, rather than grant aligned contract, I’d ensure research staff had contracts that covered (say) five years. There would still be performance goals concerning grant success, but the contract would not be tied to an individual grant being successful. Thus, researchers could recover from lean patches. More importantly, Post-Docs would have time to develop without the pressure of every grant application having to be successful. Finally, it would mean that you could keep people you know have outstanding skills. There are too many researchers who move roles because a grant ended. Even though they could have helped in so many other ways (see point 8, below).

2. Allow for teaching only academics – Universities are in the business of providing education, but not everyone is cut out for research and teaching. Some are better at research. Some are better at teaching. If we allow for teaching only academics, those who want to teach will be able to do so. Such an approach will have the positive impact of improving staff: student ratios and thus scores on international ranking schemes. For those universities with education departments or faculties, the pairing of lecturer (teaching only academic) with researcher would foster interuniversity collaboration, improvement of teaching, translation of research into practice (and vice-versa), and perhaps even facilitate research outputs from teaching only staff.

3. Set quotas for inclusion of women – I know setting quotas is controversial. However, the pace of change has been too slow for too long. Thus, I would set quotas (obviously aiming for 50:50 split) for the inclusion of women on committees at all levels, including recruitment, selection and promotion panels. I believe committees are the best place to start is this is where many university decisions are made. Of course, there are many areas that need attention – pay gap, women in senior leadership positions, career interruptions, to name just a few.

4. Quarterly performance discussions – The annual performance review is essentially pointless. It is the equivalent of driving from Melbourne to Sydney but only looking at the map or road signs every few hours. Wrong turns, miss steps, and traffic jams would be common. Keeping an eye on the road and the map would allow you to correct your course, avoid wrong turns and go around traffic jams. If staff met with their supervisor more frequently to discuss performance, problems could be fixed, difficulties could be avoided, and researchers could actually develop their skills in a more structured way. Rather than muddling through – which is so often the case. Issues rife in academia – such as poor supervision, leadership and/or management – could be addressed as they happen rather than discussed as we view the carnage left behind.

5. Support PhD supervisors – we all know PhD training has to change in order to better meet the needs of society, not to mention the students themselves. However, much of the focus is on additional training for the students. If I were a Provost for the day, I’d put together a supervisor training and development program that included some course work on leading and training others. As well as a buddy or mentor program the paired supervisors and supported discussions of the issues they face training PhD students. Acknowledging that in some disciplines PhD students have a listed supervisor and then other people who provide research support and guidance day-to-day, I’d have peer group for these people as well.

Of the 11 things I’d do as a university

vice-chancellor, the number 1 would be

to disconnect grants from research

contracts. What would you do?

6. Being on campus would be compulsory – yes it might be a little harsh. But so many collaborations start through serendipitous meetings. Those kinds of interactions are impossible without being on campus. It would not be compulsory to be on campus every day. And it might not be compulsory to be on campus every week. But each area would be expected to have times and days when all staff are on site. They might schedule this with department-wide seminars, workshops or training sessions.

7. Compulsory professional development – as a research career develops you might expect to win more grants, more money and therefore have more people. To support that, all staff supervising three or more people (including students) would be allocated a coach. Someone to support their development and growth as a leader, manager and supervisor of others. Professional development would be beyond research skills and include leadership and management.

8. A pathway for technical experts – increasingly researches and teaching involves specialised equipment, processes or reagents. Recognising some people enjoy being these technical experts, I’d ensure publication, grant and IP policies were inclusive of these roles, rather than omitting or ignoring them.

9. Equipment and rooms would be shared – all rooms and equipment (low cost equipment would be excluded) would accessible through a central booking system. No one would be an exclusive owner or user. Of course, if training is required for use that would be part of getting access to make a booking. And, where possible, rooms and equipment would be made available 24-7.

10. Change IP ownership policy to give more to inventors – current IP policies massively favour the university. When, in many cases it is the researcher who has taken the risk. The risk to write the grant, develop the IP and then create a possible commercial outcome. Mostly, the university has not taken on any risk. Thus, I’d shift the IP ownership to have 50% given to the inventor(s), 25% to their department, and 25% to the university. If the effort was collaborative, then the split occurs across all three levels not just the researcher’s component.

11. Focus on mature aged PhD entry pathways – PhDs have increasingly become a vocational qualification. Something that people do if they would like a research career. But we know fewer than 10% will end in an academic research role long term. And we also know that PhDs offer far more than academic training. Thus, I’d create entry pathways for mature age PhD students that focus on experience as being a criteria for entry, as well as knowing/having an industry problem to solve or better understand. This would be further supported by funding for part time PhD students.

That’s eleven – and a lot to do in one day – what would be on your list?

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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