Unethical academics are making a mockery of our education system

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Here are two short articles from the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous, which provide insight into two particular problems experienced in universities.

A culture of unethical behaviour is thriving at our universities. But these are publicly funded institutions – and must be held to account.

On the face of it, ethics in academia have transformed over the past few decades – most, if not all, universities now have ethics committees to oversee the quality of research. Yet experience has shown me that, in reality, many academics pay little heed to ethics.

What qualifies as research is open to question, and increasingly academics working in non-traditional areas are not even engaging with the ethics committee at their own universities. Worse, educators are behaving unethically with respect to the university more widely, their professions and the UK taxpayer.

There are academics who have full-time corporate jobs while also receiving a university salary. There are clear examples in many Russell Group institutions. There are academics from professions such as medicine, engineering, law and archaeology who have either part-time or full-time contracts with other employers. Particularly worthy of note are the law academics who work full-time in practice at a law firm while also receiving a full-time university or college salary. 

Is the taxpayer subsidising the legal profession? And what happens to the independence of their university research? The boundaries of these moonlighting academic researchers are defined by their commercial practice.

Some seem not to have much real interest in being academics at all. Yet they are able to use academic titles to give them independent expert status in industry, build a career outside of academia, and ultimately gain financial recompense far greater than an academic salary.

These are not isolated cases, and universities contain many examples of other ways the system is being exploited. At one university, for example, an academic paid about £20,000 to hire a room less than 100m from their university for an event more about self-promotion than academic content.

I’ve witnessed academics hiring students to work on external career projects despite the fact that they are paid by the university. I’ve seen them fixing research contracts at part-time rates of pay while expecting the person to work full time, when full-time contracts are available. Others use their expertise to accredit foreign items looted from war-torn countries for auction houses and the wealthy elite (giving some form of provenance to the stolen treasure, be that through inclusion in an academic article, translating writing on the object, or providing a history of the object for a seller or owner).

Then there are the academics at prestigious institutions who spend just one day a week during term time at their universities, while living and working in other countries. They have signed contracts stating they will contribute to university life – but this is hardly possible if they’re located elsewhere.

No one is begrudging academic success, or ignoring other honourable academics who spend their free time lecturing classes – even at weekends, and for free, in some cases. But there is a widespread cultural problem surrounding ethics at universities.

There is little attention paid to how academics behave or deliver their duties. The remit of university ethics committees – which have clearly not stayed in touch with the issues – needs to be extended to include the decision-making of these academics. Universities are publicly funded institutions and play an important role in societal development. The taxpayer and the students paying high fees should be demanding answers.

If we the educators, paid for by the British taxpayer, do not operate and practise with the strictest ethical codes, how can we expect the rest of society to adopt sound ethical standards? Not only this, but the value of a university education is being diminished.

The ethics problem is systemic, but the solution is simple: academics should be made to disclose conflicts of interest in their jobs, and disclose external contracts and earnings to their university and the public. It is time to relieve the taxpayer of these unethical academics – and ensure that research independence, ethical behaviour and accountability are passed on to the next generation of students, academics and professionals.

Related

Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paperwhich in part lays out an account of the revolving door between corrupt corporate and political institutions and handful of careerist academics spinning out a lucrative, ideological and neoliberal niche for themselves.

I’m an academic but I took a corporate job. Should I be ashamed?

 

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I’m a British academic, but no longer feel welcome in the UK

Much has been written about the possible brain drain among European nationals following the Brexit vote. A huge 76% of European academics are thinking about leaving the UK. But they aren’t the only ones who feel unwelcome here. I’m a British academic, and I’m leaving to take up a post in Europe.

Thanks to now-mainstream racist and anti-immigration discourses and policies, I no longer feel at home here. For me, Brexit is the last straw, building on foundations laid by the government’s net migration policy (upheld by the supreme court last week). Introduced in 2012 to reduce immigration to “sustainable levels” by limiting family reunification, it has directly undermined my right to family life.

My personal experience of the policy began when I married a non-EU citizen in 2011 while conducting doctoral fieldwork in his home country. Although we’ve now been married six years, my husband has never been able to enter the UK. Our first application for a tourist visa, so that he could meet my family over Christmas in 2012, was rejected on the grounds that I did not have sufficient savings. 

I couldn’t apply for a two-year “leave to enter” visa for him either, because despite juggling part-time teaching and consultancy contracts, I didn’t earn over the £18,600 net income threshold that permits British nationals to invite a non-EU spouse. This threshold is designed to bar entry to individuals who would end up claiming benefits, but ignores other types of assets. In my case, I lived rent-free with my parents so my husband and I would never have had to seek recourse to public funds.

It is estimated that the threshold affects just over 40% of the British working population and discriminates against women in particular. As many as 17,800 families can be broken up each year, and in many cases the policy has actually created de facto single parents reliant on the welfare state.

I now have a full-time job at a university I adore, where I did two Master’s degrees and my PhD. The combination of departments and research centres at my institution makes it the perfect place for me to work. I take great pleasure in my job, which involves supporting less privileged students to enter higher education. And I have been lucky in that my supervisers and colleagues have been unwaveringly supportive, both professionally and emotionally.

I always assumed that I would settle with my husband in the UK, given my strong networks in British academia and the fact that my biological family all live here. But the most my husband and I see each other in person is for one to two weeks up to three times a year, and we maintain our relationship through Skype. Although we would love to start a family, we’ve postponed having children for several years as I couldn’t face the insecurity of giving birth to and raising a baby without him.

I now earn enough to bring my husband to the UK, but applications for “leave to enter” and especially “permanent settlement” are extremely onerous and expensive (£1,500 for the former and £6,000 for the latter). This is compounded by the fact that English is not the official language in his home country, so for permanent settlement he must pass exams requiring a standard of English well beyond that needed for everyday life in the UK. Because he also presents dyslexia symptoms, we would face the cost of years of private language lessons if we are to live together.

Like many other couples, the hurdles, uncertainty, and ongoing distance between us have negatively affected us both financially and emotionally. Until I recently secured a contract at a European university, we were in a constant state of anxiety as to whether we would ever find a solution to our situation.

Incredibly, I have more rights in Europe than I do in Britain as a British citizen. European countries realise the value of highly-skilled employees in making their universities competitive. For instance, Germany’s Humboldt Research Fellowship [pdf] provides a stipend for dependent family members, and funds language acquisition for non-German researchers and their spouses.

I have invested heavily in my academic career, and Britain has invested in me: I benefited from several degrees at previously subsidised rates of £3,500 a year, not to mention a prestigious Research Council PhD grant. But I don’t feel a sense of duty to “give back” to a country that denies me the right to family life.

Debates about the risks that the net migration policy and hard Brexit pose to academia have tended to focus on restrictions on international students [pdf], and the challenges UK universities will face in retaining and recruiting the best academics and securing collaborative research grants. Yet the potential loss of British academics affected by absurd family reunification rules, or those with EU spouses uncertain after Brexit, has remained largely invisible.

But after following the comments on various academic blogs, I sense that I am not the only one looking for an escape route. Theresa May’s model of Global Britain is anything but, and risks alienating those with personal and professional links to the world beyond this small island. Evidence shows that highly skilled Brits are currently emigrating en masse as salaries and quality of life are so much better elsewhere – and there is no reason to assume that this won’t apply to British academics after Brexit.

 Related

No longer welcome: the EU academics in Britain told to ‘make arrangements to leave’

Brexit exodus: EU academics ‘already pulling out’ of UK universities, MPs warned

Both articles are from the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous, which is the blog series where academics tell it like it is. If you would like to be the next contributor to the anonymous blogpost about the trials, tribulations and frustrations of university life, get in touch here.

 

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