The recent statement by the rector of Ghent University that the institution “is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people” was eagerly received by British academics, sick of an audit culture which privileges competition and undermines solidarity inside higher education. The statement chimes with the desire of increasing numbers of university staff to stand up against the destructive and nonsensical metrics of TEF and REF and to resist the rampant managerialism and marketisation with which they are associated.
The Branch Solidarity Network is determined to support UCU members as they campaign on these issues and contacted an academic at Ghent to find out more about what lies behind the statement. The comments below – anonymised at the author’s request – are not meant at all to dampen our enthusiasm for an academy without rankings but simply to inject some realism into the discussion and to reassert, as if it were needed, the importance of comprehensive grass roots activism in securing durable change. This is a hugely significant step in the right direction but it is not yet time to celebrate…
“Firstly, I want to say that I see a need for a more international movement against an all too numeric approach to measuring ‘success’ in academia. There is a need for less paperwork indeed – after all, Belgium is the capital of bureaucracy as you know. Furthermore, we’re seeing an increased number of dropouts (including people suffering from burnout) in academia because of the hypercompetitive climate. The rector rightly responded to this need – backed by the unions – and the statement is certainly a step in the right direction.
However, while I really endorse the statement, I am afraid this is nothing more than window dressing as it is not really changing the situation. The rector promised to get rid of publication pressure during his election campaign but, in reality, what has been abandoned are the ‘personal goals’ (personalized goals in terms of project acquisition and number of publications that need to be achieved in order to get tenured and promoted). However this is only a small part in the big academic radar work of metrics and rankings that remains in place.
Abolishing these goals is a good first step, but it does not affect, for example, the Ghent programme for excellence, which ranks professors based on metrics, impact factors and so on. This policy keeps on encouraging and rewarding professors to publish as much as possible, and preferably in ranked journals. It does not affect the precarious positions for postdocs, which have hardly any long-term perspective and (rightly) feel exploited by the academic system. It does not affect the policy of the Flemish Government, which finances our universities, for a large part, in terms of the number of publications.
Hence, the academic pressures remain as financing is a zero-sum game between all universities – hardly without any increase in budget, if Ghent decides to reward publications less, this will then have an impact on the public funding of the institution. It does not affect the policy of the FWO – Flemish Research Council – where (journal, no book) publications are paramount in getting funded. It does not affect EU research programmes, where Ghent professors need to compete with other high-performing scholars.
If the entire academic system does not change, then Ghent risks being withdrawn from the competitive academic game. Government policy has to change, but also scholars’ attitudes. We may be complaining about rankings and all this, but we continue to submit to ranked journals (downplaying the so-called value and impact of journals that are not ranked) and continue to review free-of-charge for these journals.
In conclusion, I’m skeptical about the likely impact of the rector’s statement as, without further support from public institutions, I don’t really believe it will change anything. I realize that by being too critical, I risk throwing the baby out with the bath water which is certainly not my intention. Meanwhile, Ghent can decide what it wants, but if the entire academic system does not change, the statement has no value and it may even be counterproductive to my university. Of course I fully support the statement, but I would have loved a strong collective signal from all Flemish universities, together with a strong call from the regional government, to abandon a quantitative approach to measuring ‘success’ in academia.”