Friday 29 May 2015

Academic Collaborations and Passionate Concern for Theory

The Times Higher recently reported the dominance of Asian Pacific Universities in the world rankings of universities under 50 years old (see Since I have spent the last week on the Russian side of the Asian Pacific Rim at the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) in Vladivostok, this was of particular interest to me. This week, amongst other things, I attended a video conference between the University and Chinese partners aimed at establishing closer relations between the two countries (a somewhat awkward communication, it must be said!). Clearly there is an appetite among these institutions to reach out to other University academics across the world - which is why they have established a visiting professor programme which has brought me here in the first place.

Collaborations are strange things not properly understood by University managers who might wish that they happen. At a consultation with the Economics and Management academics of FEFU today, I pointed out that my collaboration with a brilliant young academic in Vladivostok occurred completely by accident through collaborating with another academic in Amsterdam who I had written to a few years ago because his theoretical interests coincided with my own. The FEFU school I was attached to is a school where the academic work tends to take the form of instrumental econometric analyses of particular markets. There's a lot of number crunching which I confess I haven't got a lot of time for. But what I do care for, what actually has real life, is theory. It was a theoretical interest which led me to write to my Amsterdam friend. It was a stroke of astonishing theoretical genius by the young Russian academic in Vladivostok which caused her to also collaborate with the same person, and eventually with a Norwegian academic (who was also here as visiting professor) and myself. And then we all met in Vladivostok for a week of hectic lectures, meetings, a conference and a vodka-fuelled evening.

There are a few things to say about the conditions for this happening. First of all, it is an accident - it cannot be planned. Secondly, academics, as they become more experienced, get very good at making the most of accidents! Thirdly, the fuel that drives the motivation is deep passionate, consuming interest - which in my case means theory.

Theoretical development is not very popular in many Universities these days. Few projects are funded on the basis that they generate new theory. And yet, I wonder if it might be the case that without theoretical development there is no deep passionate engagement. Without deep passionate engagement there is less motivation for talking to fellow scholars around the world. Without scholarly connections being made, there is no discourse, and without discourse there is little point in Universities, unless we merely see them as creators of qualifications. The problem for Universities is that the qualifications only have the value and esteem that they do because of the heritage of scholarly pursuit from which the content of degree courses has emerged over time. Without scholarship, Universities do not have status. Without status, their capital value will evaporate.

These are serious problems for Universities, some of which have identified themselves as "teaching intensive", or even as "teaching-intensive but research-informed" - to at least nod in the direction of scholarship, even if being "informed" by research means nothing more than buying the latest edition of a course textbook. Why this focus on teaching? Because that is where the money is. However, the scholarly connections which give life to academic networks across the world work on the same basis as the scholarly connections which are established between academics and their students. Fundamentally, it is about deep passionate concern.

When I studied for a PGCE, the wisest advice I was given was "always teach to your enthusiasm". I thought this was great advice until I realised that the education system did everything it possibly could to try and stop anybody teaching to their enthusiasm! Of course it would - if an individual taught to their enthusiasm then their teaching might not be able to be transferred to someone else.

Academics will always fight for their freedom within the University system. One or two will have real deep passionate concern for their subjects, and this fascination will lead them to make connections across the world. The system and its managers's job is to facilitate this happening. Unfortunately, education systems the world over are becoming increasingly good at squashing passionate concern and the space for deep thinking often because it presents a political challenge to University management!

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