Autonomy in Social Science Research: Volume 4

Cover of Autonomy in Social Science Research

Table of contents

(14 chapters)
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Changes in the freedoms of individual academics and universities have been gathering apace across the western world since World War II (e.g., Altbach, 2001; Karmel, 2003, p. 2). Such changes have compelled the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to alert the world community to the link between freedoms experienced in the university sector and those in wider democratic systems. In 1998, UNESCO held a World Conference on Higher Education with a specific focus on academic freedom and university autonomy. An international charter resulted, detailing mutual rights, obligations and monitoring mechanisms. The International Association of Universities (IAU), the group responsible for convening the UNESCO debate, emphasised that academic freedom and university autonomy were essential to be able to transmit and advance knowledge:For Universities to serve a world society requires that Academic Freedom and University Autonomy form the bedrock to a new Social Contract – a contract to uphold values common to Humanity and to meet the expectations of a world where frontiers are rapidly dissolving. (cited in Ginkel, 2002, p. 347)

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The data on which this essay is based were originally collected as part of a larger study investigating Academic Freedom and Commercialisation in Australian Universities (see Kayrooz, Kinnear, & Preston, 2001). A web-based questionnaire survey of social scientists across 12 universities in Australia was completed by 165 respondents (representing a 20% response rate). At the end of the questionnaire, respondents were asked to indicate whether they would be willing to engage in a follow-up telephone interview. Ten of those who indicated their willingness to be interviewed were contacted, and all agreed to the interview.

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The freedom to choose research topics and approaches lies at the heart of questions about academic freedom and autonomy (Russell, 1993). When academics are making decisions about research, they have choices about how they act, choices about how they communicate research and choices about how they relate to the processes of research. In order to elucidate the kinds of autonomy exercised by academics in 21st century research, my concern is to explore how an academic might negotiate their way through different choices.

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Ideas matter. Thought matters. Thought is a form of doing. Theorisation shapes our sensibilities and determines what we see with incalculable effects on our actions. When ideas are embodied in the often prosaic practices of organisation and management, they determine the personality of institutions and the condition of our lives within them. Social norms have a gritty materiality that belies the classical split between materialism and idealism.

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‘Professors complained bitterly when [Hood, the then Vice-Chancellor-designate of the University of Oxford] declared that anyone who criticised the intellectual fitness of his colleagues for government funding would be “summarily fired”. Unrepentant, Hood responded that his “unequivocal support” for academic freedom didn’t apply to those “who choose arbitrarily and gratuitously to disparage their colleagues”. That message couldn’t be tolerated at Oxford, where disparagement is served alongside the sherry’.1

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At best, university research policies on autonomy can support an open legal, contractual and social environment for research collaboration and publication. For the individual, they can protect the publication of unpopular, contentious or speculative findings from undue interference. For the university, the policy framework sets the direction and guards the production of knowledge as a resource for its own reputation and income. As Trowler (2001) argues, the set of intentions codified in university policies generate their own reality and values that the university usually pursues with requisite authority. For the university system, the policy framework reflects the extent to which the university is able to set its own ground rules. University policy is not created in a vacuum but, rather, reflects governmental and other constraints, and is further bounded by international, national and regional priorities (Kleeman, 2003). This chapter explores explicit policy statements on research autonomy taken from a selection of Australian universities in order to examine the effect of recent governmental changes on research.

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The great majority of contemporary research into higher education follows well-established social science norms, making extensive use of interviews, questionnaires and documentary sources, and carrying out careful and standardised analyses of the data collected thereby. System policy, course design and related topics attract the widest interest, with most research pitched at the course, institutional or system level. By contrast, there is relatively little published research on higher education that takes a more critical stance, examines the details of the academic experience and focuses on the individual or group (Tight, 2003a, 2004).

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Higher education as a field of study has been relatively ignored by social scientists. Yet it is a growing area of research, especially applied research, as higher education itself becomes more visible and important within advanced ‘knowledge economies’. Higher education is seen by some to hold the key, at least in part, to the achievement of both greater wealth and greater social equity; the former through the creation of new knowledge and the production of new ‘knowledge workers’, and the latter through the provision of opportunities for all to develop, contribute to and benefit from the greater wealth. For others, however, the role of higher education is seen to lie more in the reproduction of existing social inequalities.

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The social science research community in higher education in the United Kingdom constitutes the largest group of staff covered by any of the six research councils. Over 25% of the people entered in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) had a social science base. This chapter examines the way the pattern of social science research in the UK has been affected by, mainly, the RAE, the interpretations and strategic implementations that flow from it, and the funding allocations it informs. It draws on my own previous work, and that of others across a range of social science disciplines, as well as a small survey of active researchers conducted in late 2004/early 2005 as processes were set in train for the 2008 exercise. The critique of a process based mainly on peer review provides food for thought for those in Australia, where a research quality assessment exercise is in prospect. Paradoxically, the UK may be moving, after 2008, to an approach close to the one being abandoned in Australia.

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In the first part of this concluding chapter, we will use these four questions to review the themes and issues related to academic freedom and autonomy arising from the contributions in the three sections of this collection. As the reader will recall, these sections focused on autonomy and the individual researcher, autonomy and the cultures and structures of university research, and autonomy and the motivation for research. In the second part of the chapter, we offer some general conclusions based on the arguments put forward by our contributors.

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About the Authors

Pages 229-230

Gerlese Åkerlind is a senior lecturer in Higher Education, attached to the Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods (CEDAM) at the Australian National University. She is a co-editor of the journal, Higher Education Research and Development (HERD). Her research interests include the nature of academic work, and the experience of being an academic.

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ERRATUM for

Page 231

M. Tight, editor, Autonomy in Social Science Research: The View from United Kingdom and Australian Universities; International Perspectives on Higher Education Research, Volume 4, ISBN: 0-7623-1405-2

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Cover of Autonomy in Social Science Research
DOI
10.1016/S1479-3628(2007)4
Publication date
2007-02-09
Book series
International Perspectives on Higher Education Research
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-84950-481-2
Book series ISSN
1479-3628