I have been reading a book recently that offers an account of the way modern universities have been losing their direction. It is written by an Australian-based scholar Richard Hil and is aptly titled Whackademia. It was given to me by a PhD student of mine, Christian, who is investigating the rationales that lead PhD students to undertake their studies in light of various myths and realities that define the place and value of a PhD in modern society (incidentally, if you want to read Christian’s insightful musings on all things sociological, click here).

Hil’s account is perceptive, and he raises a number of issues facing universities that I have witnessed first-hand and have long concerned me about the present and future direction of higher education institutions.

The concerns range from the introduction of simplistic metric-based performance evaluations of teaching and research, ‘strategic’ appointments, promotions and privileges that are not necessarily linked to merit, the exploitation of staff (particularly sessional teachers) through extensive workloads and uncertain contracts, the commodification and cheapening of research, and outright misconduct and corruption.

The notion that government funding, industry needs and the realities of the education market are forcing or encouraging universities to adopt these practices might be true to some extent, but universities are not putting up much of a fight and are not seriously looking at alternatives.

One of Hil’s points is that academics feel impotent in their ability to arrest these trends. More alarmingly, many have adopted the bureaucratic and corporate rationale that has increasingly framed scholarship and teaching in modern universities, thereby becoming its agents and gatekeepers. In short, academics have become sheep to the entire process of so-called ‘rationalization’ (although I will argue that the process is not necessarily rational at all). As supposed innovators and independent thinkers, this is unacceptable.

In a series of articles I will address several of these issues, and invite academics to take a pro-active stance to creating a more engaging and enlightened academic environment. I will ask what happened to the lofty ideals of universities as institutions of innovative and advanced learning? Who set the new agenda and what can be done about it? How might faculty, for example, take a more active role in the committees that appoint management and set the strategic direction of institutions? How might academics not only resist the forces that impact their activities, but challenge them in more collective, powerful ways? How can students and the general public support ‘higher’ learning in its true sense, and restore the integrity and power of academic research to reveal insights about the human condition?